Tough Enough to Ride the Mountains On

Heading in to the dry lot pen for the day.

Rocky Mountain Rider ~ July 2009, Vol. 17/No. 7

From the lodge I saw the corral gate of the dry lot pen swinging in the wind. The horse herd of thirty-five disappeared into the trees before my astonished eyes. Surprise gave way to annoyance. I knew who opened the gate. He had been testing the latch for weeks, since he arrived at the B-C in early spring.

The buckskin should have been born a mule. He would have done that stubborn, jugheaded, leather-tough, conniving, race proud. Instead, he claimed Mustang blood for his heritage. Robert roamed the Nevada wilds until he was caught. A series of purchases and sales led him to my parents’ outfit. He quickly became the problem child, the instigator of fights, the inventor of escapes, and the diabolical master of a wreck.

Quick feet carried me through the misty rain. The sad eyed sorrel in the wrangling pasture next toe the dry lot pen looked at me woefully when I caught him for the second time in one morning. Rain had not washed away the saddle marks from bringing the herd in fifteen minutes ago. Cowboy, a stupid name for a sweet, if not intelligent, horse. A dude horse was better than chasing them on foot so I saddled up and began the pursuit.

I crossed the wooden bridge with my head hunched low under my hat, hoof beats echoed into the day’s dreary grayness. Far above my head, sooty clouds crowned ominous peaks. The road beyond the bridge gave me a few hundred yards of easy traveling.

Off the road, Cowboy slid, stumbled, and panted his way up the mountain. Gravelly soil gave way like the snot it was after three days of rain. The rugged Frank Church Wilderness Area receives little precipitation. When water falls, the country is so used to being dry that it doesn’t know how to cope. It’s like the land forgets how to let the water soak in. We continued to follow the escapees’ path. The mountainside was steep enough my uphill boot dragged in the mud, despite Cowboy’s 16 hh of height.

Cowboy

We were well above the sage line when I caught up with them. I circled below and came around in front. Sideways in the saddle, I let Cowboy catch his breath. The buckskin’s head shot up, eyes filled with the thrill of a challenge. He didn’t have time to decide. A horse I knew well plunged over the ridge’s edge, taking the herd with him. The new instigator was my old barrel horse: a paint that loves to run more than he loves to eat. It was gong to be a long day.

Dense trees gnarled and twisted their way into my path. Wet branches slapped my face with stinging force. Horseshoers and outfitters had given me an excellent education in profanity. Today, making them proud would be easy. The neighbor on the opposite mountainside later said he could see me cussing, and that I did a good job of it. He was in Vietnam, won medals, lost friends; he knows a proper cussing tantrum when he sees one.

The trees opened and I saw the buckskin and the paint out front, heads bent to the wind. I couldn’t cut them off with a fat dude horse, so I followed. My cursing continued under the abuse of Cowboy’s jackhammer lope, a result of poor conformation and even worse coordination. The mountains gave me a favor for once. They rose rugged and steep to my right, preventing the herd in front from scattering. The fence line to my left funneled them along, towards a trap that I knew they had forgotten. There was only one place I could corner them: where Little Arasta creek meets the old Silver creek homestead and the top line of the pasture fence. A perfect box created by nature and man. Slowly unenthusiastic groups lagged behind the main herd. I pushed them along. They had joined the party, they sure the hell were going to finish it with me. Frigid wind ripped across the mountainside, turning my breath frosty as I continued to mutter curses and plans of vengeance. My chinks were soaked through, and trickles of water ran down my back.

The lagging groups and I finally caught up with the rebels. I found them in the shelter of the trees, huddled together, hides steaming with heat from their exertions.  The Little Arasta and Silver creek trap had worked with the help of the upper fence line. My muttering about rebellious horses changed to irritation.  The only upper gate in three miles of pasture fence would have to be at the far end, with a massive yellow pine resting on the ground in front of it. I curbed my anger, talking low and slow to the mares in the herd. Rope in hand I snared them one by one, leading them over the downed tree, shattered branches, and through the ancient wire gate. Panic showed in the eyes of the geldings and the john mules. Predictably, their infatuation with the mares led them through the gate into the pasture that I had wrangled them from before their escape.

Five rebellious beasts would have none of it. They wouldn’t allow me near enough to catch them and they refused to follow the rest of the herd into the pasture. I closed the gate and turned to face the conspirators. They were the toughest and most stubborn of the bunch: Robert, my paint, my mom’s mule, a guide horse, and my dad’s old sorrel. They were not willing to give up their freedom as easily as the rest.

Into the creek in a downward plunge, brush tore at us all. The brush gave way to lush green fields. Paradise does not exist. The first horse to try the fields went belly deep in mud. Dad’s horse flailed his warning to the other four before he slowly freed himself from the bog and moved back into the creek. Defeat finally touched their eyes when we hit the road. They were caught. An impossible shale slope loomed over their right shoulder, and the pasture fence ran the three miles of road to their left. Through the rain, I saw the thirty head in the pasture watching with interest. I would have to come back for them once the conspirators were back in the dry lot pen.

At a bone-weary trot, we covered the rocky road in pouring rain. Even man-made flat ground lacks softness in the Frank Church. I dropped my hat back on the stampede strings, too wet to care anymore. Miles passed like hours until we made it through the main gates and into the dry lot pen where it all started. They stood in a clustered knot under the over-hang. I unsaddled Cowboy and caught Robert. He jumped as I swung the saddle across his wet back. Into the rain we went. I loped and trotted the instigator through pasture mud, swollen creeks, and sage flats. By the time we reached the 30 head of horses I had left, a grudging respect had formed between us. With the leaders gone, the rest of the herd made their way back to the pens with meek submission.

Robert

I eyeballed the steaming buckskin with hate and admiration. Twelve miles of Frank Church in half a day and his eyes still radiated defiance. Conniving, ugly, and tough as hell, he would do to ride the mountains on. We were going to become closely acquainted with each other. I smiled my revenge and slapped his wet neck. He was my new wrangling horse. He rolled his eyes at me, the whites showing. We both knew we were in for a rough ride.

Walking back across the road to the lodge, I smiled to myself. The truth of the matter was that we could both be worse off. He could be roaming the overpopulated desert in a search for food or wasting away behind the rails of a Mustang adoption center. I could be trapped in an office behind stacks of paperwork slowly killing my soul. We are both wild things with a love for harsh country and the need for untamed lands. The ride would be rough, but we would both enjoy it.

©Kaitlin Ens

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