The Mountain Horse

Once in his youth he was handsome & proud
Fleet of foot at the head of the crowd
Till the day came to earn his keep
On the Frank’s mountains & gorges rough & steep

That first year he was packed
To see if he had what it took or if he lacked
The mountain horse’s grit & steady mind
That he would need if ever he was in a bind

It was an eye opener that season
His mama would have been ashamed at his spooking for no reason
The hornets & the bears, the snakes & the haunts
He left that year worn out & kind of gaunt

The second year he was in the guide string
To ensure he wouldn’t give a hunter a bump or a ding
He became a real good’un so away from dudes he stayed
He earned every grain pan he was paid

Age crept up on him like it does to all
So one day at a hitch rack late in the fall
A dude swung astride
A good mountain horse he carried him on a gentle ride

The seasons rolled away
He saw guides come & saw some stay
He got a little older & a little stiff & sore
He became a backup in case you needed just one more

The hollows above his eyes got a little deeper
The handsome hips turned to rafters getting steeper & steeper
Till he didn’t come in with the herd one autumn morn
They found him still as he was before he was born

Now years later his skull’s stuck in a tree
No it isn’t gruesome because you see
It is a respect paid to those who have earned their keep
On the Frank’s mountains & gorges rough & steep.

Respecting the Dead

I breathe in the crisp air of an early summer morning in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. Sprawling across central Idaho, the Frank Church is the second largest wilderness area in the lower 48. Spanning 2,366,757 acres, it plays hell on men and animals alike. What little flat ground there is disappears beneath sage and rocks. The mountains stagger towards the sky with brutal steepness. The old timers blasted devilish trails into rock faces that mountain goats avoided.

The scent of crushed sage fills my nose, a sweet aroma brought on by 35 horses in their headlong rush to escape the wrangler. Me. I do not follow their mad charge down the mountainside, causing the buckskin beneath me to chew the bit angrily. He is new to the saddle and still remembers the Nevada mountains that he called home. The urge to buck still visits his mind from time to time. He will make a tough mountain horse though, the kind this country demands. Like the kind I am remembering this morning.

I ignore his frustration and pay my respects to a mule that earned his keep. I touch white bone with memories at the tips of my fingers. Wedged in the crook of a tree branch a large skull stares down from the bluff. The eye sockets, now empty holes, do not recognize me. My memories do not wake the dead.

He was the ugliest mule I have ever seen, uglier than the mountains that he lived and died in. Dirty gray hair covered a hide splattered with pink patches. His obscenely large head bobbed in a sad rhythm when he traveled down the trail. Scott Farr, the outfitter that owned him, always said “the only way I’ll own a mule that ugly is if he’s a damn fine working animal.” He was that for as long as I knew him.

I rode Hulk as a young kid in hunting camp. He was the only mule that tolerated my tricks for getting in the saddle. The 16hh giant stood next to stumps and straddled fallen trees so that my short legs could reach the stirrups. Together, we traveled some of the roughest country the Frank Church can offer. Hogback ridge did not daunt Hulk, nor did the bear cubs in the tree three feet away from his head. He worked years in a land that eliminates animals in months.

How he ended up in the B-C pasture I don’t know. Maybe Scott sold him, or was just pasturing him here. Either way, it doesn’t matter. I found his skull at the beginning of summer. When I found out who the bones belonged to, I wedged the skull into the tree. The lower jaw I never found. He died in this pasture. Simply didn’t come in with the herd one morning a year and half ago. They found his white carcass 150 yards to my left. Part of his vertebrae is still there, but that is all. Remnants of the dead do not last long here. By next year the skull will be fractured by the ice and cold of winter. Two years from now all that will remain is fragments of bone held in place by bark.

He is gone, but I am not, and neither is the buckskin I ride. He has stopped chewing the bit and is now tearing the earth beneath us apart with a large hoof. He does not understand why we have stopped, only that the herd is far ahead and out of sight. One day bones will be all that remains of his youthful impatience. Maybe he will earn his keep well enough to be respected like Hulk. Only time will tell.

I move on. The moment of respecting the dead is over. Now I must tend to the living.

Magpies and Long Lost Loves

He wasn’t handsome, but then a girl’s first love usually lacks perfection. His young body was tall and gangly next to my short stockiness. We were a perfect match. How he earned the nickname Pard I do not know, but in some indefinable way, it fit him. Over many hours of trails, quiet except for the talk of magpies in hawthorns, we traveled.

As horses go, he was not the pick of the herd. He was too small for the weight of hunters and not tough enough for hard use by the guides. He belonged to Scott and Shelda Farr, the outfitter my parents worked for at the time, so he was never really mine. For a few years, I chose to forget that. He became a little girl’s best friend, and later, an adult’s fond memory. He became my unofficial horse. His mischief-filled eyes separated him from the rest of the herd. I loved the deep fathoms of those sparkling hazelnut orbs. Houdini was one of his many nicknames. He could escape any pen. The guides who had to chase him down called him many other names that my innocent ears should never have heard.

Over rocky trails and steep gorges, we traveled to hunting camp accompanied by the singing of magpies. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area consumes nearly 2.5 million acres of Idaho. I did not know that at eight years old, not that I would have cared. I looped reins around my saddle horn with supreme confidence in my best friend’s navigational skills, kicked booted feet loose from the stirrups, and dug lunch from well-worn saddlebags. My casual treatment of trails that made hunters pale with fear drove mom crazy. Pard never stumbled, spooked, or misbehaved. When the magpies stopped singing, I shattered the silence with my out of key tunes. Pard would keep rhythm by flipping the bit in his mouth, making a clinking sound that amused me and annoyed others. I rode him for two years before we parted.

He filled out, matured, and became tough enough for the guides, though rarely big enough for the hunters. My unofficial horse found himself in the guide string. A day’s work became harder and grain pans became well earned rewards after a long day on the mountains trails. Like other girls my age, my fickle heart moved on. This time the horse was officially mine, a black Morgan named Jesse among other things with his own personality and set of stories for us to make together in the following years. Pard didn’t seem to mind, he never held a grudge like people, or turned his nose away from me.

Although I no longer rode him, I still visited him in the corrals when my horse wasn’t looking. I left the backcountry at the age of twelve and went from being home-schooled to a private school. I missed the simplicity of mountain trails and the honesty of four legged friends. Years passed and things kept changing as I went off to college. My parents bought their own hunting outfit where I spent last summer enjoying the simplicity of hard work, blood, and sweat. My herd of three horses mingled with my parents 35 head.

I saw Scott near the end of my stay at the B-C ranch. We hadn’t seen each other in years, not since I couldn’t pronounce my r’s and said hosses instead of horses. The horses and mules in the trailer were being retired, sold to people who would use their old bodies in easier country. The noses of the old stock poked curiously from the slots in the silver stock trailer behind Scott’s truck. One in particular caught my attention. A blaze faced sorrel with brown spots marring the white streak. I scratched his nose through the trailer, smiling at the gray freckles that showed his age, it was Pard. We talked with Scott for a few minutes before he continued on his way. I said goodbye again to a friend and a love, as he disappeared into a cloud of dust.

I thought I saw him a while ago while driving across Montana’s Horse Prairie to Salmon, Idaho. Out in a pasture bordering the winding road stood a sorrel with winter hair resembling a wooly mammoth. The tall gangly body was the same and the magpies perched on his back brought back memories. Then his head turned and my memory-filled eyes cleared. No brown spots marred the blaze. Maybe he was some girl’s long lost love but he wasn’t mine. I drove on towards family and friends, but the memories of Pard remained.

Middle Fork of the Salmon River Trip – Day 3