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.

*********Don't forget to vote to help me choose which story to submit to the writing contest***********

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.