Thursday, October 29, 2009

Critter in the Willows

Meeker is Estes’ first-born daughter and has a lot of Estes’ personality traits, but she’s much more of a cuddle bug than Estes is. One season, when Estes’ owner wanted to breed her, I leased Meeker as my wrangler horse. She is an amazing lead horse; she knows where all of the horses in her string are at all times and is a strong leader, it doesn’t take more than a flick of her ear to keep them in line. In return, the horses in the dude string respected her and followed her lead without any problems. The general rule of thumb is that if the lead horse is calm, the string will be calm as well.

Toward the end of the season, Meeker and I took out a two-hour steak dinner ride. Basically, it’s a ride/dinner combo. The group goes out for a ride and then returns to the livery for a steak dinner around the bonfire. Steak rides are always a lot of fun because they are always the last ride of the day and once the ride returns to the livery and the horses are broken down and turned out, the wranglers get to join the guests for steak. Don’t get me wrong, our cook fed us well. We never had any complaints about our food, but, come on, it’s steak!

Meeks and I got lucky that night; all of the guests could ride well, so I chose to do a more challenging trail than usual. Rather than going the along the Trench trail, across Fox Creek, and up to the pond, I decided to take the ride along Rock Creek on the Willow Tree trail. I love the Willow Tree trail, but didn’t get to take rides on it very often because it traverses some very rough terrain, which includes riding almost blind through willow trees along Rock Creek and picking our way across the face of the mountain. Just getting to the Willow Tree trail is not for the faint of heart. The trail down to the Willow Tree is just that, down. It’s not super steep, but it does induce the pucker-factor in most guests since they can see clean over the top of the rider in front of them during the descent. It’s rather disconcerting for the wrangler, too, since it’s just not natural to have to look up to check on the line.

My favorite part of the Willow Tree trail is riding through the willows; they grow on along Rock Creek, almost right next to the rock face of the mountain. The willows try to reach out and drag you out of your saddle, and if you’re not careful, you’ll come out of the other end with scratch marks all over your arms and face. It’s like breaking trail, even though there’s a trail already there. As a wrangler, it’s nerve wrecking to not be able to see your riders behind you, which is why I so rarely took rides that way.

The guests were chatting away about the view and asking about wildlife as we descended to the Willow Tree trail. I was telling them the story of how Meeker’s mom had saved my life by stopping dead in the trail to prevent my ride from crossing a mountain lion’s path as we approached the entrance to the willows. Coming down, just before entering the willows, there’s a slight left turn, a step down from the trail onto shale rock, and then a series of small boulders that have to be crossed.

Meeker had just completed the left turn and placed her left front hoof on the shale rock when something crashed in the willows. In the blink of an eye, she had spun on her front hoof and had us pointed back up the hill. It happened so fast that I’m still not completely sure if she sensed a critter in the willow and started to turn or heard the crash and turned. One moment we were fixin’ to enter the willows, the next we were facing the wrong way.

The crash from the willows was loud enough that the entire first half of the line heard it, while the back half of the line only got to see Meeker’s athletic turn. There was a whole chorus of “what was that?” and “did you hear that?” My only answer was, “I have no idea.” Nor did I want to speculate. I did know that it probably was not a deer or elk because they would not have fit between the willows and the rock face. It probably wasn’t a mountain lion either, because they’re sneaky, stealthy critters, not crashing through the brush critters. I was hoping that whatever it was – my money was on VW Bear – was going the other way through the willows and wouldn’t magically appear behind me.

I hollered up to the back of the line and had them turn around. I had no choice; I had to lead the ride from the back until we got to the top of the trail. There was just no way for me to get off trail and get up to the new front of the line.

In the end, we had to take the Trench trail across Fox Creek and up to the pond, but, boy, did we have a whole heap to talk about over dinner when we returned.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I Need Barn Names!

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

Sunday, October 18, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

Creative Nonfiction Entry - Introducing the Herd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 9, 2009

Black Rufus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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