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.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


One afternoon I was alone at the livery when a small, hatchback car pulled up and out stepped an older lady. At first glance, I estimated her to be in her late sixties; she moved with dignity and spirit, but when I got closer, I realized that she was much older. She leaned on the fence, delight at seeing the horses all over her face. I could tell that she had a kindred horse spirit. I met her at the gate, wondering if she was stopping by for a ride even though we didn't have one on the books.

No, she hadn't stopped for a ride, but saw the horses and they brought back so many fond memories she just had to stop. In her eighties, she was car camping alone at nearby Olive Ridge campground. She explained to me that her kids were grown with kids of their own and didn't enjoy the mountains as much as she did, so she just packed up her car and headed up the mountain. She was too old, she told me, to sleep on the ground so she chose to sleep in her car, which was much more comfortable and if she got cold she could just turn on her heater.

I invited her into the yard to meet the horses, but she declined. She did tell me that one in particular reminded her of a horse she had as a child, so I brought that horse up to the fence. I don't remember which horse it was that I took to her, but I do remember the look on her face as I led the horse to the fence. It was as if the clock had been turned back and she was a child again, the delight absolutely radiating from her. She completely forgot I was even there, she was so lost in her memories. I stood quietly holding the horse watching her go back in time. The horse was as entranced as she was and stood absolutely still while she ran her hands over the horse and murmured her memories.

I'm not sure how long we stood there, the three of us, but it was an absolutely magical time. When she was done with her walk down memory lane, I offered to help her up and just lead her around the yard. She turned me down, but said that she may come back the next day to take me up on the offer then. We chatted a bit longer, then she drove off with a big, child-like smile on her face. I watched her drive away, absently petting the horse, and hoped against hope that she would come back the next day.

I didn't work the next day - I wasn't scheduled - so I don't know if she returned or not, but I'll always remember the look of absolute joy on her face. I can't quite explain the feeling I got from being a small part of her trip down memory lane.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Fall, A Fractured Foot and a Helicopter Ride

Each horse is built just a little bit differently, just like humans. The horses who are built like barrels with legs take a little more balance than others; there’s just nothing to keep the saddle from rotating around the horse’s body with each step. A barrel-shaped horse can be a bit of a challenge for a wrangler. Since wranglers spend a great deal of their time turned around to face their guests, shifting his or her weight the wrong way can lead to a pretty embarrassing dismount from the lead horse. Trust me, been there, done that.

I took Clementine, who was one such horse, out for a four-hour ride one day with five or six guests. The Barn Boss I worked for at the time encouraged the wranglers to “explore” the trails; we didn’t have set routes to follow. My guests were pretty good riders and were excited about the idea of exploring the trails; at each junction I’d ask them “right or left?” and let them decide where we were going. We were making good time and I wasn’t paying too terribly much attention to where we were headed; I was confident that I knew every inch of the trail system and could get us home. Until it was time to head home.

I looked around and realized that I had absolutely no idea where we were. Oops. Bad wrangler. Not a good thing to do, get the ride lost. We weren’t call-Larimer-County-Search-and-Rescue lost, but we were pretty far from home and I wasn’t sure which trail to take back. I did know that in order to get back, I had to keep Mount Meeker on my right and keep moving.

Eventually, I found a trail that appeared to head us in the right direction, despite being a trail I’d never been on. We definitely were on an adventure ride. The guests were loving it, but I was getting stressed. They’d been scheduled for a four-hour ride and we didn’t find a trail that headed us in the right direction until we’d been out four hours and I had no idea how long it would take us to get back to the livery.

The trail I found was fairly steep, but do-able and I was so relieved to be headed the right way. I turned back to my guests, to check on them, forgetting for a moment that I was riding Clem, the barrel with four legs. When I turned to look behind me, I straightened my left leg, shifting my weight to my left stirrup, and slipped my right foot out of my stirrup. Catastrophic mistake. I had forgotten about Clem’s pesky habit of dropping her shoulder to “help” her rider off her back. I felt her shoulder dip and the saddle shift. Oh, crap. I was going off and there was nothing I could do about it. I desperately tried throwing my weight back to my right, but without my foot in the stirrup I had no leverage.

Crap…crap…crap…crash! I landed on my back in a bush. Great. I had a line of horses on the incline above me and the incline was such that every single one of my guest saw my graceful exit from the horse. My saddle was underneath Clementine and I had to strip it off to re-saddle her, all while standing in the bush that broke my fall. Thank God the bush was strong because it was the only thing keeping me from rolling down the hill. The good thing about having to saddle a million horses each morning is that I can throw a saddle in no time flat. I managed to muscle the saddle back up on to Clem and get remounted without too much heckling from the guests; guess they were as tired as I was. Thankfully, the rest of the ride back to the livery was completely uneventful, despite the fact that our four-hour ride turned into a six-hour ride when all was said and done.

Back in the yard, I dismounted to tie Clem to the wrangler rail and the brat stepped on me. I was tired and didn’t pay any attention to my foot placement when I dismounted. She turned and that left front hoof crushed the outside of my right foot. Dang. Like it wasn’t bad enough that I fell off in front of my guests, my guide horse had just fractured my foot and I still had to unload my guests. Could it get any worse?

I “Cowgirl upped”, gritted my teeth, and bid my guests goodbye. No sooner had I gotten them on their way and their horses tied to the dude rail, when I looked up to see Kevin, one of our wranglers, running at break-neck speed down the switchback. But he didn’t have his guests with him. That is never a good sign; wrangler running his horse back to the livery in a panic and no guests with him. Bad, bad things had to have happened.

The Barn Boss and I were waiting for him when he skidded into the yard, hollering to call 9-1-1. Boss got Kevin calmed down enough to tell us what had happened. His ride was trotting in one of the few “safe” areas and his guest had fallen off and was laying unconscious at the west side of the meadow.

Since I was an EMT, I immediately got ready to head out to the guest while we waited on the fire department. Using Clementine was out of the question, she was absolutely pooped after our ride, so I grabbed our “chase” horse. A chase horse is a wrangler horse that is tacked up and left on the wrangler rail for cases just like this – to chase down rides if they get lost – ahem – or to go render aid if needed. Not all liveries have chase horses, but I was lucky that day; our Barn Boss firmly believed in them.

I quickly got directions from Kevin and left the yard as quickly as he had entered it, my fractured foot forgotten. The chase horse gave it all he had until we were about halfway to the meadow, then he just stopped dead in his tracks. He was done with this running B.S. and the most I could get out of him was a fast walk. No matter, we were still going to get to the guest before the fire department. It wasn’t hard to find the guest, he was still out cold on the edge of the meadow and his daughters were standing over him, holding their horses.

I handed off my horse and shooed them away so I could do my thing. Within minutes after I started my evaluation and treatment of the guest, Kevin returned to report that 9-1-1 had been called and the fire department was on the way. There wasn’t much I could do other than make sure he didn’t move – duh, he was unconscious – and keep an eye on his vital signs. I noticed that his breath had a fruity smell and asked his daughters if he was diabetic, since fruity smelling breath can be a sign of Diabetic Ketoacidosis – very bad. The answer was that he wasn’t diabetic – whew – but that he’d had a “couple” of beers at lunch in Boulder. Wow. Alcohol and altitude don’t mix at all.

The fire department finally showed up; they had to drive up the fire access road to get to the meadow and only one of the rigs could make it to the meadow. By the time the guys with the red and blue lights showed up, the guest had been unconscious for twenty minutes or so. The decision was made to call in the helicopter, which was our clue to skedaddle. The horses were not going to be happy with the whirly-bird coming to land in their meadow.

Kevin and I tied up the horses’ reins and lead ropes, slapped them on the butts and sent them home. The guest’s daughters chose to stay with their dad until the helicopter got there and would catch a ride back with the firefighters. That meant that we had to walk back. I didn’t really think the walking back part through, though. It was a long, long, long, long walk back. Long and painful walk back.

We found out later that day that the guest was going to be physically fine, but he was going to be charged with animal cruelty. It’s apparently illegal to ride a horse in Colorado while under the influence of alcohol. My day wasn’t nearly as bad as his. Yes, I fell off my horse and fractured my foot, but that was it. He got drunk, passed out, fell off, got a ride to the hospital in a helicopter AND got charged with animal cruelty. Nope, my day wasn’t so bad after all.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Headless Horsewoman

Very early in my career as a wrangler – long before I realized that despite all of my hours in a saddle I knew nothing about horses – I had an experience that will stick with me the rest of my life…

I had just returned from a ride and was riding my horse toward the wrangler rail, intending to tie up there. Magic, the little black mare I was on, had other ideas. It was late. She was tired. And cranky. And hungry. And she was going to go to the pen to eat and sleep with or without me.

I tried turning her away from the barn toward the rail, but she was having none of it. I had made the potentially fatal mistake of thinking I was home and I “quit” riding, meaning that my focus was already elsewhere, not on the horse. Magic, who was much smarter than me, took advantage of my lapse and took control. She bolted toward the breezeway through the barn and was well underway by the time I gathered up the reins to try to get her back under control, or at least turned away from the barn. I snatched at the reins and pulled with all the strength my hundred and thirty pound body had; it was like trying to stop a freight train.

Each stride took me closer to certain decapitation. All I could see was the corrugated tin roof of the barn at throat level getting closer and closer. It dawned on me that I’d need to lean forward over her neck to avoid becoming the headless horsewoman. I’d just given up on trying to stop her and leaned over the saddle horn, when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.

The barn boss stepped out of the office doorway with a 2x4 and took a mighty swing just as we entered the breezeway. He caught Magic right across the chest, shattering the 2x4 in the process. Magic immediately reared up, spun around and dove toward the rail. It didn’t matter to her that the dude rail, where the entire string of guest horses were tied, was full. She just needed to get away from the crazy, 2x4-wielding man. She pushed her way between two horses tied to the rail and reared up again when she realized that she was trapped – there was literally no where for her to go with the chest-high metal rail blocking her escape. She was so close to the rail when she reared up that she didn’t have room to come back down, so she improvised and balanced on her back legs with one foreleg on the rail. Miraculously, I was still on her back; not really a good place to be. If one of the horses to either side decided to kick out at her, I would end up on the ground, under all of those hooves and I did not want that. I sat, frozen, in the saddle afraid to move a muscle, afraid to unbalance her.

From behind me, I heard a completely calm voice, “just stay there, she’ll come down on her own.” Yeah, right, like I was going to move; I couldn’t even bring myself to nod my head.

It seemed like an eternity that Magic and I stayed there, until her breathing calmed down and her panic abated. And then the shaking started. The adrenaline that had given her the strength to stay rock steady on the rail subsided with her panic and she started shaking with the effort of maintaining such an awkward pose. I knew at that point that she was going to collapse and I’d be under all those shuffling hooves.

She managed to pull herself together and with a powerful heave, pushed herself up off the rail. We landed with a thump, all four legs in their proper place on the ground and me still in my proper place in the saddle.

The very next day, the barn boss installed a gate across the breezeway to avoid any similar situations from happening. The gate was a pain in the rear end to deal with, especially at the end of the day when we were all tired and cranky, but I never once complained about it. Unfortunately, a few years ago, another barn boss took over the livery and soon thereafter removed the gate. Within a short period of time, there was another incident in which a horse was tired, cranky, hungry and headed for the pen. The wrangler on that horse got lucky in that she only spent one night in the hospital after being knocked unconscious and dragged through the barn.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Dead Fly and a Long Hair

I got back from my first ride with the writer and her friend much more relaxed than when I'd left and was immediately sent out on a 2-hour with a father-son team. They rode pretty well, so I took them along a trail that takes a bit more riding skill than most of our guests have. We had a great time crossing beaver ponds, exploring meadows and circling the top of the mountain.

On the last leg of the trip home – within a half a mile of the livery – the son's horse, Rocky, set to bucking. He'd been kicking at a fly on his belly, and we all thought he got it. Ha! That damn fly just moved under the rear cinch and bit the hell out of the poor horse. So, I pulled up Sundance and blocked Rocky's way. The wrangler horse that I usually ride, RC, would have just bumped Rocky to brace him and been done with it, but not Sundance. She wanted nothing to do with a bigger horse bucking into her. Thank God the kid could ride. He just sucked himself down into the saddle and went with it. I dismounted and reached for his lead rope, hoping that Sundance would stay in a blocking position, but NO, she's a chicken and hid behind me, so that when Rocky bucked into me, he knocked me back into Sundance, who then decided to move and I fell on my arse. 'Twas wonderful! There’s nothing quite like laying on your back with an eleven hundred pound draft cross bucking over you.

I let go of Sundance’s reins, hoping that she wouldn’t realize that home was so close and choose to leave without me, and scooted back out of the way. Once I scrambled back to my feet, I managed to calm Rocky down enough to reach under him and kill the damn fly. By that time the adrenaline was really pumping, so I may have obliterated the fly, rather than just kill it, with the big wind up and slap I gave that poor horse’s belly. The rider had a grin that like to split his face and appeared to have had a great time riding out the bucks. Deep sigh! I retrieved Sundance, who had wandered off to graze, mounted back up and traveled the 100 yards to the top of the hill. We got to the switch-back and, lo and behold, the guys had done some trail maintenance and re-routed the path down the switch-back. Guess who loved that? You got it – the chicken, Sundance! She was already worked up about Rocky bucking and being pulled away from her grazing, and now I was asking her to take a new way down the switch-back. Right. Like that was going to happen. So I dismounted and lead her down, which suited her just fine. I guess she thought she could hide behind me again if there was anything scary on the “new” switch-back. The other horses followed me without a problem and I was beginning to think life is good again. Ha!

I mounted back up (again) and start down to the road. Seriously, not 10 feet and Sundance started choking. I can't figure out what's wrong, but hop down anyway to see if she's got grass stuck on her bit and can't find anything. By this time, she's good and worked up and wouldn't let me re-mount, so I lead her down to the road, where it's nice and flat and I figured I had a better chance of mounting up. Double ha! When we got to the road, she was in serious panic mode and there was no way on God's green earth that she was going to let me back up. She was going to the livery with or without me. I'm just thankful I managed to keep her from backing into all of the cars that were passing (because why would they slow down and stop if they saw a horse acting up?). I finally said forget it and lead her back to the yard (with lots of circling because she kept trying to run me over). My riders were still with me and full of patience (bless them). Of course, the first person I ran into in the yard is the one wrangler I believe to be a waste of perfectly good oxygen, who demands to know what happened, and did I see those dogs who were off-leash? Implying that I'd been dumped off of Sundance rather than dismounting on my own to try to fix the problem. Boss must have seen the look on my face, because he appeared out of nowhere. I told him that Sundance was choking on something and I needed to deal with her, so he unloaded my ride for me.

I unbridled Sundance, and sure enough, there was a glob of mane or tail hair that had been in the grass she'd been grazing that had gotten wrapped around her bit, with a piece about 8 inches long that was trying to go down her throat each time she swallowed. I would have panicked too. I hate loose hair, and wet hair will immediately set me to puking. I'm pretty proud of the fact that I got that green, slimy, nasty hair unwound from the bit without throwing up! Of course, I had the dry heaves for a long time after I made sure she was okay.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Sometimes, a horse just works their way into my heart. I didn’t mean it to happen, but there was one, in particular, that wormed her way into my heart, though I fought it kicking and screaming.

Raja was a bad tempered, ill-mannered mare. As with most livery horses, she was bought at auction so her lineage was questionable - she looked like a Belgian - but I wouldn’t have bet my paycheck on it. What I did know was that she had absolutely no respect for human space and was a bully. She was caught in the pen easily enough, but would run you over as soon as walk beside you. She’d charge the gate when we’d open it to drive the feed truck in and God help you if you didn’t get out of the way. Once she learned the end-of-day routine, she would practically drag any wrangler who had the misfortune of being the one to break her down. Good luck getting her to stop at the tack room to remove her tack. It took two wranglers to break her down; one to stand in her way and hold her back as much as possible, and another to strip off her tack. More than once she attempted to run down the wrangler manning the gate into the pen. Because she was so unpleasant to handle and be around, she got very little positive personal attention. The grooming she did get was cursory at best and it was sometimes a draw as to whether or not she’d get her belly brushed. On days when she felt like it, it was all good. On other days, the wrangler risked getting his or her hand broken by a flying hoof.

Raja was the bane of my existence for her first few weeks at the livery. Then one day I had enough. I was the wrangler unfortunate enough to have to lead her to the tack room to be broken down and she pushed me around and stepped on me one too many times. I had absolutely had it with her and decided we needed a Come-to-Jesus meeting right then and there. The other wrangler who was helping break down just laughed when I said that Raja and I needed to have a little talk. I’m sure that the other wrangler’s money was on the horse, not me. Heck, if I’d been him, I’d’ve bet on the horse too, but I was done with being bullied by this ill-mannered mare.

I pulled Raja to a stop in the breezeway and reached up to grab hold of her halter; I practically had to hang on it to get her to lower her head. Once she did, I got in her face to make sure that she saw me. Then I not-so-calmly told her that I would not tolerate any more of her crap and that, by God, from now on she was going to behave herself. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. I was finished with her antics and I would make her life a living hell if she didn’t straighten out.

Now, I didn’t think my rant through very well, because, honestly, I’m not sure how I would have made her life any more hellacious than it already was. As I made sure she knew I was there and told her what the rules were, it dawned on me that we had made life as unpleasant for her as she had for us. Not a single one of us wranglers had given her the time of day; we’d written her off as a total loss. We needed her to haul our guests around, but that’s about all of the consideration we gave her because of her temperament. What was wrong with us? What was wrong with me that I could treat a horse so indifferently? I’d certainly not abused or neglected Raja, but I was guilty of doing the bare minimum for her and nothing more.

Raja and I came to an understanding that evening. She was a horse who needed – craved - strong leadership, needed to know exactly what the rules were and needed them enforced consistently. I promised to lay out the rules and enforce them and she promised to try to behave. She and I never became best buddies, but we did develop a mutual respect and gradually my heart warmed up to her. The other wranglers continued to have problems with her; she continued to run them over and step on them and in general, ignore their existence.

A couple of weeks after Raja and I came to our understanding, she had to be taken over to the main livery to have her shoes replaced. I was there when she was unloaded from the trailer upon her return and couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew that it was standard policy to “box” all Drafts, but hadn’t thought much about it until I saw Raja’s eye.

Because there are so many horses who need shoes, the horse shoers (not ferriers) had a policy of putting every Draft horse in the “box”, a large squeeze-chute contraption that the horses were loaded into, the walls closed down tight (squeezed), then the whole contraption is rotated onto its side, horse and all. It’s a quick and efficient way to control a horse and get shoes on all four hooves.

But not all horses like being boxed. Raja was one of them and fought the shoers with everything she had. Even once she was squeezed she continued to fight the only way she could, which was to swing her head side to side and move it up and down. The result was that she came out of the chute looking like Rocky Balboa. Her right eye was swollen almost completely shut and most of the skin was rubbed off.

I could have cried when I saw Raja’s eye. She and I had come so far; we weren’t friends by a long shot, but I felt so guilty about her treatment by the shoers. I wasn’t the one doling out the treatment, but would it have killed those guys to take even just thirty seconds to calm her down before putting her in the box? I know the answer – they had too many horses to do and not enough time to do them. And, honestly, she wasn’t an easy horse to get along with.

The worst thing was that Raja lost a little bit of her spunk and fight after being boxed. The other wranglers didn’t see it; she still ran them over and stepped on them, but her heart wasn’t in it anymore, she just didn’t care. She wasn’t exerting her independence anymore; she just didn’t give a damn.

That, not the eye, was the worst thing that ever happened to Raja. It broke my heart the rest of the season to watch her go about her work and not care. I still took extra care with her and she still responded to me well, but she was well and truly broken. Just thinking about it still breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


The ride schedule was adjusted at the last minute and I got scheduled for a 4-hour ride that was originally assigned to Jeremy, Boss man’s son, but Boss man wanted to go on a ride with his niece's husband and he put Jeremy in the office. No problem. I can roll with the punches, but I didn't have a wrangler horse assigned and the horses that I wanted to take were pulled off the line for Boss’s visiting family to ride. He finally assigned me to Sundance, his "dead broke" horse who he'd been letting LB, the department store cowboy, ride. LB had never been on a horse in his life before getting hired. Trust me, Sundance was anything but dead broke after having an inexperienced rider on her day in and day out.

I did finally get out on my ride and things got much better. The riders turned out to be a couple of those rare diamonds. One was a staff writer for multiple horse magazines, the other was the director of a local equine therapy center; both were also riding instructors. Talk about pressure! I found myself sitting straighter in the saddle and paying attention to my body’s communication with Sundance – things that I should do all of the time, but let slide on occasion. Though they rode for work, they had come up to the livery for a “fun” ride, where they didn’t have to worry about anyone but themselves and having a good time. After a rough start with juggling wranglers and horses, once we actually got out on the trail we clicked right off the bat and had a great time. We discussed the articles I’d read that she’d written, talked about some of the great trainers she’d met and the rides she’d been on. Her friend talked about her work with the equine center and the need for used tack for the facility, some of their students and things they’d learned along the way. The writer took tons of pictures and said to watch for a picture of me in one of the magazines executing a proper "road crossing".

It was the perfect ride to settle my nerves after the snafu of trying to get the ride out with all of the last minute changes. Rides like that make the job worth it; we left as a wrangler and two guests, and returned four hours later a group of friends.

Several months later, I was flipping through Trail Rider magazine and what do I see? A blurb about safe road crossing and the picture above it is of me and Sundance. The funny thing about it is that I kept looking at the picture, thinking "I don't recall wearing a long-sleeved red shirt under my gray shirt." Stupid me, I'd had a Washoe moment and forgotten sunscreen – those red sleeves were my sunburned arms!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Washoe, the Wonder Idiot

Yea! May in the Colorado Mountains! The sky is blue, the snow's a-melting, and the tourists are coming!

One early May the big Delivery Day hadn’t occurred yet, so when assigned a ride, I had to borrow one of my mom’s horses, a grey Mustang-Arab cross named Washoe. To say that Washoe is a bit of an idiot is a bit of an understatement. He's totally the herd geek; he really wants to be big man of the herd, but has no idea his fly's unzipped. He might be a good horse if he ever grows a second neuron.

The ride I was to take out with Washoe was just one lady for a two-hour ride. Not a big deal. Even Washoe can focus for a small two-hour ride. Right?

The first hour of the ride went amazingly well. The sky was clear, sun just warm enough to be comfortable in shirt-sleeves. A perfect riding day, despite having to skirt a lingering snow drift blocking one of the trails. No problems from either horse, good conversation with the guest, beautiful day. Not only was it going to be a good ride, but a good tip. I could feel it in my bones, or maybe that was the impending rib separation. After the halfway point, Washoe started tossing his head - nothing unusual, because he's an idiot and head tossing is a bad habit of his. After a few minutes, I decided that he's not just being an idiot, but that he's tossing his head as though a fly is biting his face, so I dismounted, ran my hands all over his face, scratched him all over, and he relaxed. His whole body sighed with relief. I couldn't figure out what the heck his problem was and decided once again that he's just being an idiot. Because, I believe that in some obscure dictionary, Washoe is synonymous with idiot. Whatever his problem was, the big sigh and eyes practically crossed in relief lead me to believe that I’d solved the problem.

About five minutes after I got down and scratched his head, he started up again. I was ir-ri-ta-ted and growled at him, "you stupid POS, I'm not doing this for the next hour, so knock it off!" He settled down a bit and we crossed a cute little creek all swollen from spring run-off with a minimum of fuss, which made me partially retract my previous statement. I expected to have a little trouble convincing him to cross the water since the summer before he reacted to water like a cat facing a bath. Maybe the second neuron was beginning to develop!

We started up the hill to the lake, which is our turn-around point. His head tossing increased with each step up the hill. At first, for about half a second, it was cute, because he looked like he was shaking his head “no”, he didn’t want to go up the hill. His head shaking “no” was a bit peculiar since he had now figured out where we were going and tried to step it up a little. My guest, at this point was just shaking her head over Washoe misbehaving, but was still having a good time – there was still some hope for a good tip. Halfway up the trail (remember, we were going uphill at this point), Washoe stopped in his tracks and started tossing his head back and forth, absolutely adamant in his “no” now, like there's a fly biting him, only, I knew better. There was no fly, just Washoe being Washoe, but I couldn't get him to stop tossing his head back and forth. The trail wasn’t too terribly steep, but the hill fell away to the left and rose sharply on the right. Being a whopping 15 hands tall myself (that’s 5 foot for you non-horse types), I knew that if I attempted to dismount to the left, I’d fall right on my butt and probably roll down the hill. Great for laughs, not great for the body. The soil to the right looked fairly firm, but having had experience, I knew that if I tried to dismount to the right, the soil would slip out from under me and I’d fall on my butt and probably roll down the hill. Again, great for laughs, not great for the body. I looked back at my guest, shrugged my shoulders, and told her we’d move on as soon as the idiot was finished with his tantrum.

His little temper tantrum escalated until not only was he shaking his head and tossing it back and forth, but he began throwing his head so hard to the right and left that the idiot actually threw himself (and me!) off the trail. Going downhill. The same downhill that I thought I’d avoided by not dismounting. I managed to stay with him as he landed on both elbows, head facing – you guessed it – downhill. His head tossing stopped and I could feel him thinking, "Uh, oh! Now what?" That's a familiar expression on Washoe's face, but I had never actually felt him think it. So we sat there for a second or two while he regained to his senses (what little he’s got, anyway) and I realized I'd kicked my feet out of the stirrups in anticipation of the launch that I thought was going to happen when he threw us off the trail. My boots were four inches above the ground; I could have stepped off of him without any problems. My guest was behind us, still on the trail, absolutely speechless.

I started to relax and thought I'd ridden out the worst, all Washoe had to do was regain his feet. Although he’d thrown us off the trail, he at least picked a fairly clear area. Five feet to either side of us were nothing but rocks and scrub brush. It was the last clear landing zone on that stretch of trail. I supposed I should thank him for that. This should not have been a big deal, if I sat still, there shouldn't have been any problem with him getting back up. Right? Now who was the idiot? I had forgotten that I was on Washoe, the Wonder Idiot. One second, we were nice and calm, albeit on his elbows, and the next I was popped off his back like a kernel of popcorn. Literally. I went from being a nice dormant piece of un-popped popcorn, to exploding out of the bowl. Thanks to years of soccer, I can take a hit and I can tuck and roll with the best of them. All I could think while airborne was, "that effing idiot is going to roll over on me!" As soon as I hit, I rolled to the side and back on to my feet (yes, it was a 10.0 landing!), ready to make a break for it so I didn't get rolled over by 900 pounds of gray idiocy. So much for avoiding landing on my butt and rolling down the hill. Turns out I was going to get plenty of chances that summer to perfect my landings. And, guess what? It wasn’t much for laughs – I think I gave my poor guest a heart attack.

When I stopped moving long enough to realize that Washoe the Wonder Idiot hadn't rolled us both, I realized I still had a rein in my hand. Score one point for the wrangler. Any horse with two neurons would have taken the opportunity to go home, but, no, not Washoe. He stood on the trail looking at me like, “what are you doing down there?” I retrieved my hat – and my pride – from the bushes, checked my saddle, led him up the trail to a spot with a rock to stand on and remounted, the whole time threatening the glue factory for him. The rest of the ride was absolutely uneventful without even a hint that he would start tossing his head again. Idiot. Maybe I should have threatened the glue factory much earlier in the ride.

Once my guest got over her shock, she was appropriately impressed with her wrangler and tipped well. Not well enough to take a dive on every ride, but well enough to take the sting out of my pride.

After the adrenaline wore off later in the day, I started feeling the soreness and thought I'd just pulled a muscle. Later on, when I went to bed, I realized that "pulled muscle" was actually a rib separation. It took until July before I could comfortably lie on my left side again. Thanks Washoe!

Turned out the stitching was coming undone on the Wonder Idiot’s bridle and the loose end was poking him in the cheek. Most horses would have just blown it off as a minor annoyance, but not Mom's little drama king, so now Washoe's bridle sports duct tape over the stitching to protect his wittle face.

Friday, August 14, 2009

VW Bear

There's something about my bed in the bunkhouse that makes me sleep like the dead. Could be that the physical exhaustion from fourteen-hour days helps me go to sleep. Could be the white noise of the horses in the pen not ten yards behind my window lulls me to sleep. Could be anything, but I sleep unbelievably well at the livery.

Spring brings out the deer, elk, fuzzy little bunnies, and the bears. Tourist season means the buffet is open! No matter how often we tell tourists not to leave food in their cars or trash unprotected it still happens. And the bears know this, so as soon as tourist season heats up, so does bear activity.

Because of the increase in bear activity when tourist season gears up, all of the trash cans and dumpsters in town are “bear proofed”. There are some pretty inventive ways to bear proof a dumpster inexpensively. One of the restaurants in town uses a car battery and lengths of chain to electrify their dumpster. Works pretty well. Another uses bottles of bleach and vinegar sprinkled over the garbage and hangs gallon bottles around the outside of the fence surrounding the dumpster. Doesn’t work. My parents use a steel bar across the top of their dumpster that is attached with heavy-duty bungee cords – when the bear pulls up on the lid the bungee cords slam the lid back down. Works well, frustrates the bear and makes a lot of noise. The livery uses come-along straps wound over the top of the dumpster and tightened down, then another come-along strap to secure it to a tree so it can't be knocked over. Works most of the time, especially when whoever takes out the trash remembers to tighten down all of the straps.

One night I had the strangest dream that Mom's horse, Jesse, was kicking at the feed bin in the middle of the night and and the noise woke me from a sound sleep.

Bang! Pause, bang!

I pulled my pillow over my ears, snuggled more deeply into the sheets, and tried to go back to sleep.

Bang! Pause, bang!

I was cussing that spoiled brat of Mom's out in my head, visualizing storming outdoors and across the yard to kick the crap out of her so I could go back to sleep. Then I's not a dream and it's not Jesse.

Crap! It's a bear. About the time it registered that it's a bear in our dumpster, there was one final BANG that sounded like an explosion and I was out of bed, into my pajamas and boots (now that's a look to inspire fashion - flannel jammies and cowboy boots) in record time. I got to the door of the bunkhouse and realized, crap, I don't have anything to scare the bear off with, so I decided I'd just slip into the kitchen next door, literally 5 feet from my door, and wake up Boss man (if he managed to sleep through it) and get some cans or something to rattle around to scare it off. From a safe distance, of course. Nothing overtly threatening, just an obnoxious noise to make it decide to dine elsewhere. OK, so it was kind of a wussy plan, but it was late and my brain was still asleep.

Decision made, I took a deep breath and opened the door, not wanting to draw the bear's attention just yet, even though the dumpster should have been 30 yards from my door. I say "should have been" because there was a lot of banging going on and a good sized bear can move a full dumpster a long way by smacking it around. I stepped outside just as Boss and his wife came out through the kitchen door and activated the motion sensor light. Boss had in his hand a spotlight and shined it on the bear at the end of the yard. All we could see of the bear was a big hairy behind sticking out of the dumpster that it has turned on its side. It reminded me of the story of Pooh Bear getting stuck in the window trying to get at the Hunny Jar – the dumpster was full of bear behind. I'm blind as a bat without my contacts in and can't see my hand in front of my face. When I got up and threw on my fashion-inspiring ensemble, I didn't include my contacts. I knew, even without my contacts, that this was one big bear.

Boss man, being the smart man he is, picked up a rock and threw it at the bear. I was standing next to the idiot, spotlighted by the motion sensor light, who had just thrown a rock at the bear and does not have anything with him to back him up. No gun. Big bear. E-norm-ous bear. One rock. One it-ty-bit-ty rock. No freaking gun.

I calmly suggested to Boss that maybe he should go get his gun.

Now, I'd grown up in the mountains. I'd worked at a gun shop. I shoot all disciplines of the sport. I have a fair working knowledge of hunting and back country animals. When I suggested to Boss that he get a gun, I meant a GUN. Preferably a 12-gauge shotgun with 1 1/8 ounce rifled slugs. Failing that, his Henry rifle. A GUN! Not the pea-shooter he came out of the kitchen with.

The rock that Boss had thrown interrupted the bear’s meal and an unbelievably large furry bottom backed out of the dumpster and it turned to look at us. This beast was literally the size of a VW bug. It was a VW Bear! Standing on all four legs, its back topped the dumpster by at least four inches. The ears on the beast were as big as my fully extended hand. I had never seen a black bear top two hundred pounds or so. This beast had to go at least six hundred. This was a well-fed bear (thank you tourists).

Apparently, my brain filter failed and I uttered, "Sweet Mother of Jesus", don't remember saying anything, just remember trying not to soil myself as the bear stood by the dumpster, unhappy at being interrupted during its mealtime, but I was reminded of this brain filter failure multiple times throughout the summer. Boss picked up another rock and threw it at VW Bear. It took off (not quite as fast as its automotive counterpart), probably more scared of the mentally unstable human throwing rocks at it than anything else. I mean, after all, who knows what crazy people will do?

Boss looked around and said, "ok, let's go clean it up." I didn't realize at the time that the only people outside were me, Boss and his wife. Everyone else had either slept through the commotion (yeah, right) or was cowering in their rooms. LB, a true city boy to the core, cowered in his room at the bunkhouse. Boss went down to LB's room to roust him and get him for clean up duty. Poor LB had awoken with the first bang! on the dumpster and had been watching everything unfold through his window, afraid that VW Bear might want him for an after-dinner snack.

We went down to the scene of the crime in force: a spotlight, shovel, and pea-shooter between the four of us and the bear god-knows-where. The beast had sliced clean through the straps that held the lid closed and had yanked so hard on the dumpster to turn it over that it snapped the strap that secured the dumpster to the tree. We managed to get everything cleaned up, the dumpster righted and secured and back to bed within short order, though I don’t think LB slept for a week after that.

The next morning, I suggested to Boss that he maybe invest in a real gun rather than the pea-shooter he had the night before. Indignant, he informed me that the "pea-shooter" he had the night before was an 1880's replica .45 Long Colt. Whoopty-freaking-do! A six-shot, single action .45 LC against a 600 pound bear that had to be unloaded and reloaded one cartridge at a time is a pea-shooter as far as I'm concerned.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Gauntlet

Not being much of a girly-girl, I never gave a second thought to the approach of wedding season. Maybe I should have. The first half mile of the ride from the livery to the trail head wound through a beautiful mountain meadow, crossed the Saint Vrain River via a short bridge, ran briefly alongside a reception lodge and crossed the road leading into Rocky Mountain National Park. During the pre-season we rode that half a mile multiple times without a problem.

And then wedding season hit. A large white reception tent, big enough to seat two hundred with a dance floor, was erected in the beautiful mountain meadow. The tent had a plethora of vinyl windows looking out on the idyllic scene. It was absolutely exquisite – from a bride’s standpoint. A wedding in a mountain meadow, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and topped with an endless open sky. And how quaint, horses traveling the path beside the tent. Could anything be more perfect?

Our horses disagreed. Our well-trained, smart, easy-going horses. Our horses that were a pleasure to ride had a slightly different opinion of the reception tent. It was big. It was noisy. It breathed. Each time the breeze stirred, the walls would expand and contract a little; a gentle sigh from the white monster. Each time the wind blew, the walls expanded and contracted, angrily huffing and puffing at the horses. Not only did it breathe, but it occasionally breathed smoke when the deejay had the fog machine turned up too high. It had eyes, and if you looked closely in the eyes, you could see things moving. The horses just knew that the reception tent was really a monster in disguise. A very hungry monster who craved well-toned ranch horse flesh in a very poor disguise. And it was going to eat them. We couldn’t possibly expect them to walk calmly by such a beast, could we?

Neither the horses nor the wranglers had much choice, in order to get to the trail head from the livery, we had to pass the monster, and throwing a snot-flinging, snorting, eye-rolling, bucking temper tantrum was not allowed. Once the horses understood that we wouldn’t put up with the temper tantrums, they came up with their own solution: they wouldn’t let the monster out of their sight.

We’d leave the livery and the horses would lock onto the monster as we headed toward it; they knew that each step could be their last. They were dead horses walking. Once we reached the monster, the horses would turn to face it and side-pass the entire length, absolutely sure by now that each step was going to be their last. If they made it past the monster without being eaten, they would again turn to face forward and continue on to the bridge, pretending that the monster never even existed. It was very much like riding in the “Haunted Mansion” ride in Disney World when the cars turn on their own to keep you facing the scariest parts of the ride.

The bridge was its own little amusement park ride, but once the first horse stepped onto the bridge the rest would follow without a problem. Sort of. The issue was convincing the horses that the fly poles being whipped around by the fishermen in the river weren’t really whips and that the fishermen weren’t really horse-eating trolls. Just for fun, on occasion, a bride would want to decorate the “bridal path” to the monster – ahem – tent, and would tie lovely streamers and helium balloons to the bridge to direct people to the festivities. The horses knew the balloons were ghosts that took on a physical form and were tethered to the bridge by the whip-wielding horse-eating trolls. The horses would bunch up, tuck their butts and scurry across like they were being goosed by ghosts; once they got started, there was no stopping the bridge crossing.

In contrast to the horse-eating giant monster and the troll bridge, the reception lodge was relatively painless to pass. The horses knew what a house was and they expected people noises; the lodge was just a really big house with a whole lot of people. Really noisy people, but nothing too worrisome. The only times passing the lodge got interesting were the occasions when a bear had been to visit the dumpster. After the monster, troll bridge, and lodge, getting the horses across the street and through the parking lot to the trail head was a breeze.

“Running the Gauntlet” is what I called the thrill-a-minute half mile between the livery and the trail head. My mental checklist went something like this:
Deep breath – check
Head toward the big white monster – check
Face the big white monster, pray, side-pass its length – check
Turn away from the big white monster – check
Breathe – check
Make sure the guests are still on their horses – check
Head toward the troll bridge – check
Breathe – check
Scurry across the troll bridge – check
Make sure the guests are still on their horses – check
Breathe – check
Pass the lodge – check

The return trip was the checklist in reverse. No matter how many rides I took out, I never once lost my apprehension (okay, maybe fear is a better word) of running the gauntlet.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Introducing the Herd

The herd had settled into their hierarchy – for the most part – by the time the Arizona horses were delivered. We leased four horses from our Arizona friends, bringing our livery herd total to seventeen. The trailer arrived just after feeding time and my step-dad, Bill, and I 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 early summer evening watching our shiny, new-to-us herd? Sigh. Life was perfect.

Suddenly, Bill’s mustang, Ranger, realized that there were four new mouths he had to share his food with. 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 turned 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, 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’s eye, 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 suddenly 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.

Eventually, 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.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ranch Horses as Livery Horses

My parents were asked to run a nearby livery a few years ago. The offer was made at the last minute, literally days before the opening of the season, and there were no lease horses to be found. The local horse distributer, who runs over 1,800 head of horses nationwide, didn’t have any to spare. We had a livery, but no livestock, and the clock was ticking. In passing, my parents mentioned to the ranch owners where they buy hay the dilemma they were in. The ranchers had a solution – we could lease their ranch horses. The ranch owner told us we’d be doing him a favor of sorts by keeping his animals in shape over the summer. It was perfect! We only needed ten or so, as my parents had been able to secure a handful from friends of theirs in Arizona who ran a dude ranch. It was the perfect solution! Mountain ranch horses; they were healthy, they were in shape, and they were ready to rock and roll. They also had only been ridden by a few different people – members of the family – all of whom grew up on horseback, and they’d just come off of winter pasture and spring round-up.

Our shiny, new-to-us livery set up was about as perfect as any livery I’ve ever seen. We had a small outdoor area where we could have our safety briefing with some benches and a picnic table; the staging area where the horses were tied to the hitching posts, which were arranged in a U-shape; and a barn that connected the front staging area with the pen. The pen had a tall cross-buck fence and was more than large enough for our small herd. The livery was beautiful! Whoever designed the layout was a genius.

With the layout, we could hold our safety briefings and have every guest sign the waiver without them ever coming near a horse. The U-shaped hitch posts were perfect for matching up horse and rider; the riders safely ensconced within the “U” and the horses tied on the outside. The barn that connected the pen to staging area was the perfect place to saddle the horses; we pulled them from the pen, tied them in the walk-through, saddled them from the open tack room and lead them out directly to the hitching post.

Delivery day was unbelievable! There wasn’t much time for the anticipation to build, as it does at other liveries, since getting up and running at the last minute was such a whirlwind of activity. Opening the back of the trailer was unlike any Delivery day. I’m sure we all looked like kids on Christmas morning - we got shiny, new-to-us horses for our own shiny, new-to-us livery. Each horse prompted a round of “oohs” and “aahs” as they were unloaded from the trailer. They were all shapes, sizes, and colors, but they all were sturdy, well put-together and had intelligent, soft eyes. After all of the horses were delivered, we spent hours – well into the evening – just sitting on the fence watching the horses get used to their new home and us.

Then the work began, as it does at every livery. The Delivery Day honeymoon is very short-lived, about twenty-four hours. The newness wears off quickly as the work begins.

With our shiny new-to-us ranch horses, in our shiny, new-to-us livery, we just felt eager anticipation to get started. We had no clue what we were getting ourselves in to. In all fairness, my parents bore the brunt of the work, while I helped out after work and on weekends to get the horses acclimated and re-trained to be trail horses. The ranch horses were amazing horses, every last one of them. They were a joy to ride. They had impeccable ground manners, soft mouths, were responsive to leg cues, and could think for themselves.

They had also never seen a trail.

The concept of “stay on the trail” was absolutely foreign to them. Their faces reflected their initial confusion and you could almost hear them thinking, “Jeez, what if there is something interesting behind that bush? Or maybe that bush? What about that bush waaaaayyy over there?”

The concept of “single file” was also a bit disconcerting to them. On the ranch they worked as a team, each within sight of the other. They read each other’s body language so well it was like they communicated telepathically. Once they figured out the concept of single file, they adapted unbelievably well and continued to work as a team. The wrangler leading the ride really didn’t have to do much work as far as pacing the ride went; the horses would speed up or slow down to keep even spacing between them and would look back at the horses behind them frequently to make sure they were all still together. Of course, the wrangler still needed to check to make sure all of the saddles were still occupied – the horses didn’t care if the guests fell off as long as they were all accounted for.

As smart as the horses were it didn’t take us long to begin to feel comfortable with the thought of putting other, less experience people on them. We had the basics, after all. They knew to “stay on the trail” in a “single file” line and knew each of us well enough that they would respond to our vocal commands if they “forgot” the rules just long enough to check out the bush over there. So we invited our friends up to ride and began hiring and training new wranglers. The pre-season progressed without a hitch. The wranglers were ready. The horses were ready. Nothing could go wrong, we would be the best run livery in the area and people would come from all over the world just to ride our amazing new-to-us ranch horses at our amazing new-to-us livery!

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Bare Essentials: Interpreting Guest-speak

No matter where you work there are some constants as a wrangler; one of them is guest-speak. These phrases and their interpretations never change. In addition to these oft-quoted phrases, guests will over-rate their riding ability on the waiver and, in fact, will be appalled that they are required to sign a waiver of liability. After all, they are only going for a short ride on a “trail nag”. What could possibly go wrong?

Guest: “I ride all the time.”
Translation: “Each year I go on a one-hour trail ride (and haven’t fallen off).”

Guest: “I’m an experienced rider.”
Translation: “Each year I go on two one-hour trail rides (and haven’t fallen off).”

Guest: “I’ve been riding for years.”
Alternative: “He/she’s been riding their whole life.”
Translation: “I’ve been going on a one-hour trail ride once a year for two or three years (and haven’t fallen off).”
Alternative: “This 8-year-old has been doing pony rides at carnivals and circuses once a year for two or three years (and hasn’t fallen off).”

Guest: “No, really, the four-hour ride is fine for my 5-year-old, she just loves horses.”
Translation: “I want to go out for four hours and I’m dragging my 5-year-old along who will lose interest after the first hour and whine and cry for the next three hours and since my child didn’t have a good time, you won’t get tipped (from me or any of the other guests on the ride).”

Guest: “I grew up showing horses.”
Translation: “I’ve never ridden a horse outside of a groomed arena and I’m going to panic once I realize that we’ll be going up and down actual hills, over actual rocks and across actual streams.”

Guest: "My horse ran off with me!"
Translation: “My horse broke into a trot for a couple of steps on its way to find greener grass to eat.”

Guest: “I want a fun ride.”
Translation: “I don’t want to follow the rules; I won’t stay in line and I’ll argue every time you tell me we won’t be trotting or galloping. When I realize you’re serious about not trotting, I’ll hold my horse back and innocently trot to ‘catch up’ to the others.”

Guest parent: “She’s just a little afraid, but she really wants to go.”
Translation: “She’s terrified and will scream the whole way, but I want to go on the ride and I’ll be damned if I let my child ruin my vacation. Oh, and since you didn’t do anything to shut her up so I could enjoy my ride, you won’t get tipped (from me or any of the other guests on the ride).”

Guest: “Do I really have to go out with a guide?”
Translation: “I don’t care about the scenery or the horse, I just want to run until the horse is lame or I fall off, in which case I’m suing you.”

Guest: “I want a horse with energy, not a trail nag.”
Translation: “I’m trying to impress my date, but I’m going to freak out when the horse so much as shifts its weight once I’m mounted up.”

The flip side are the guests who you can tell at a glance know their way around horses; they may be in jeans and tennis shoes or even shorts and tennis shoes, but you can tell by the way they quietly watch the horses and other guests that they’ve probably forgotten more about riding than you’ll ever know. These guests won’t tell you they ride; when they fill out the waiver and are asked to rate their riding ability, they’ll check “poor” or “fair”. These are the guests to fight over – they understand horses, they understand the rules, and – more importantly – they know what they don’t know about horses. They will listen quietly and attentively to the safety lecture and directions and won’t give their wrangler any trouble at all. These guests are truly experienced horsemen and –women and are a pleasure to ride with; by far my favorite type of guest. When I get back from a ride with these rare diamonds in the tourist industry, I feel as though I should tip them, and often refuse (or try to) when offered a tip. It is an amazing gift to be able to ride with guests like them.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Day In The Life...

Offering trail rides to tourists is big business in Colorado. A search on shows that there are 67 riding stables, or liveries, in Colorado. A few of those offer rides year ‘round, but the vast majority operate from mid-May to mid-September.

When most people think of horseback riding, they think of ranch cowboys & rodeos. Mountain trail riding is a whole different ball game, buckaroos. Trail riding isn’t easy and not all horses are cut out for it; if they were, there wouldn’t be a demand for trainers, clinics, and magazines devoted to trail riding. Being a livery horse is even more difficult. The horses at livery stables are often labeled “trail nags” and thought of as useless. That impression couldn’t be further from the truth. Those horses work six to ten hours a day, day in and day out, with several different riders of varying ability, all of whom are strangers. The nature of the business doesn’t allow any time to develop trust between the horse and rider. Not only do they take their riders in stride (mostly), they have to deal with situations that the typical privately-owned horse never has to deal with. Traffic. People honking and waving. Loud motorcycles. Screaming kids. People sawing on the reins. Crossing water. Crossing bridges. The list is endless.

80% of the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park are non-motorized mixed-use trails, meaning that they can be used by hikers, bikers, or horses. Riding the mountain trails is also completely different riding than most people believe. They are called the Rocky Mountains for a reason. There are rocks. On the mountain. The trail will go up the mountain, and probably over the rocks. And, guess what? Basic physics law states that what goes up must come down. The trails are well-established, but not groomed. Trees branches or snow drifts may cross or block the trail. Rides may cross running water or bridges. There may be wildlife to deal with. There will be hikers & bikers; in the forest there may be dogs, either leashed or unleashed.

Livery wranglers are a different breed of cowboy. One former wrangler, who grew up riding and barrel racing, thought she knew what she was getting herself into. She admitted later that she actually had no idea what “Cowgirl up” meant until she was 10,600 feet above sea-level, four hours away from the trailer with a group of sore and cold guests in the snow in July and all she wanted to do was get some place warm and dry, yet she had to rally the troops, get them back on their horses and lead them back to the pick-up point safely. Only then did she understand that “Cowgirl up” in a rodeo arena and “Cowgirl up” in the Colorado mountains meant two completely different things.

Like the horses, the wranglers must be able to deal with multiple situations – from atop a horse and leading the ride – that the average person does not. Traffic. People honking and waving. Loud motorcycles. Screaming kids. People sawing on the reins. Crossing water. Crossing bridges. A good wrangler will know exactly which horses do and don’t get along, can pace the ride so that there are minimal gaps between horses, and can identify and head off potential problems. On top of that, they have to be friendly and informative no matter how difficult the situation (or the guests). Good wranglers put Boy Scouts to shame when it comes to being prepared for every eventuality.

A wrangler’s job during the season is often six to seven days a week from early morning until late evening. While the job sounds great (“wranglers get paid to ride horses in the mountains!”), it is physically demanding and often emotionally draining. Most livery stables provide room and board, guide horses for the wranglers to ride, and a small salary. Wranglers are tipped employees, so the monthly salary would make most sane people cry.

Wranglers come in all shapes and sizes, with horse experience ranging from essentially none to someone who was practically raised on a horse. Some are excellent horsemen, but terrible with people, while others are wonderful with people, but terrible with horses other than their own. The reasoning behind many Barn Bosses’ decisions to hire people with little or no horse experience, but who are good with people, is that teaching people skills is much harder than teaching someone to ride. I tend to agree with this train of thought with one caveat – they must be willing to learn and not think themselves an expert after one or two rides. Anyone who spends any real time around horses knows that the more they learn, the more they don’t know.

The beginning of each season is a lot like “Cowboy U”; wranglers come from all over the United States, and occasionally we even get a few from out of the country. The reason they want to be wranglers is pretty much the same – we get paid to ride horses in the mountains!

I got started as a wrangler after my parents bought a Bed and Breakfast in the mountains; we were told that they’d need help from all of us as they ironed out the kinks and got the business off the ground. After the first season, I told them I’d rather scoop horse poop than change another bed. And a new wrangler was born! My first day at the livery found me bright eyed and bushy-tailed without a clue as to what I was in for. The end of my first day found me filthy, sore and still clueless. I never got near a horse the first day – I got to wax the stock trailer from top to bottom. By myself.

One memorable wrangler named LB was literally a department store cowboy. He was a city kid who had been working with our Barn Boss at a department store during the off-season. LB was one of the wranglers who had no horse experience, but was wonderful with people, not to mention that once he was costumed up he looked like the kind of cowboy that graces greeting cards. The ladies loved him! He quickly found out that no amount of working out in a gym, no matter how chiseled the body becomes, prepared him for the physical aspects of the job. Daily feeding included loading between fifteen and twenty one-hundred pound bales of hay onto the back of a truck, then throwing the bales from the truck into the feeders. Find me a weight machine that duplicates that!

Every career has people who are attracted to it because they think they know everything there is to know about the career; at a livery those are typically the wranglers who grew up around horses, but who are terrible with people. They tend to be “stiffed” or under-tipped much more frequently than the wranglers with no horse experience.

Somewhere in the middle is where most wranglers come from; they’ve had some horse experience, but also have an idea of what it takes to work for tips. My favorite wranglers to work with are these, maybe it’s because that’s where I came from.

Once the staff is set, then housing becomes an issue. The bunkhouse is typically nothing more than shared rooms (segregated by sex) with multiple beds and external bathroom facilities. This is where the fun really begins, “Cowboy U” meets “The Real World”, but without any cell service, internet access, or cable. And often, wranglers from out of town don’t have transportation of their own. It’s a recipe for disaster any way you look at it, but year after year, the wranglers survive.

One bunkhouse – and I use the term loosely – was nothing more than an 8’ x 12’ building with a built-in bed platform, no insulation, and a hole in the roof that had been haphazardly patched. The bathroom facility was an outhouse; the sink was next to the outhouse and our running water came from opening the valve on a five-gallon water jug. Our lights were battery-operated. At least we had a phone to call the main house and to take reservations. Since the livery was small, only one wrangler at a time was required to stay in the bunkhouse over night. On my nights at the livery, I often had one of my children with me, sleeping on a twin mattress at the other end of the room. To say that it was an adventure would be an understatement! What I remember most about that bunkhouse is that it was cold! Even with a portable propane heater, we’d often wake up to frost on the inside of the windows (in July!).

Livery stables can run as few as ten head or as many as one hundred fifty. No matter the number of horses, the daily routine is predictable and is not for the faint of heart. A typical day may begin with barn call as early as 4:30 a.m. The horses must be chosen, caught, and pulled from the pen. They must then be brushed and saddled. Breakfast is usually an hour or two after barn call, but if the horse chores aren’t done, there won’t be time for breakfast. After breakfast, the rides begin. The wrangler may spend eight hours in the saddle on any given day, taking out different groups of guests. When not out on a ride, there are always chores to be done; rides to be loaded and unloaded, poop to be scooped, horses to be watered, injuries to be tended, and tack to be mended. If the wrangler is lucky, he or she might be able to get out of the saddle long enough to scarf down lunch and run to the bathroom. The work’s not done when the day’s rides are over, though. The horses must be fed, broken down, and turned out. Once the evening’s chores are done and the horses are taken care of, then the wranglers can eat dinner, shower, have a beer or two to decompress and stumble to his or her bed in the bunkhouse.

Very few wranglers make it the entire season, running into one who has worked for more than two or three years is the exception, not the rule, but those who do will have enough stories to last them a life-time.

My family and I are some of the few who have made it well beyond one season. I’ve been blessed to have worked for a multitude of barn bosses, some good, some not, at different stables in the area. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t have continued to do it for as long as I did. Even though I’m not currently working as a wrangler, I’ll always have the “itch” to work new horses, catch up with returning guests, and meet new guests. And, of course, compile new stories.