Saturday, March 27, 2010

At winter's end

Elsewhere, your thoughts, your pasture, your warm air may be turning to spring. Your trees may be swelling, budding, in bloom, or already leafing out. Your horses may have already shed, feet trimmed, and now are getting in shape for the season ahead.

Here our world remains white. Winter remains. I reflect back upon post from earlier this winter, originally posted on the High Mountain Muse site.

I know spring is coming, though it may be harder to see here. Our mare, Tres, the first of the season due to foal, has been led off the mountain into caring hands where we anticipate a new life, a healthy colt, soon, so very soon…

In the meanwhile, I share this with you about the world from which she just descended, the world in which we still remain.

The horses’ coats are thick and heavy. Shaggy, fuzzy horses. Wild beats to look at. Even their winter coats do not keep the cold from penetrating their skins, chilling them deep within.
Frost builds up on their eyelashes and at the base of their tail. Small opaque icicles form around their muzzles.

I wonder if they know this cold spell will not last but a day or two. Temperatures will warm. Mornings will return to around zero. A noticeable difference from twenty below zero, as we have this morning.

In the mornings the air is as still as the ice. Sometimes I think you can almost see the frozen water in the air.

In the afternoons, the wind blows strong and violent as the sun slides behind the slope of Ute Ridge. It is early, not even 4 o’clock as the sun silently slips away for the day, the signal which warns us to prepare for nighttime. I finish my outside chores as the thermometer’s figures drop before your eyes if you had nothing better to do than watch. Keeping busy keeps you warm.

The horses huddle in the wind. A mass of many, all with their rear ends to the wind. From one another, from the position of their hearty yet so fine and delicate bodies, they find simple protection from the elements. They remain out in the open. I wonder why they don’t seek the shelter of the sheds. Deep inside, they are still animals of the plains. They are still wild as that wind. More so in the winter, when they are allowed to be here, forced to be here.

Wild, or so very domesticated, as they have been for thousands of years, our companions, our partners, our beasts of burden, of transport, of war. They have changed the life of man. They have certainly changed my life.

Who says horses can not tell time? They are as punctual as I am. Usually more so. They watch in the direction from where they expect me to arrive, anticipating their next meal that they know will be… soon, so soon, never soon enough. Like so many sun dials if I were the sun. I suppose my presence, that which brings promise of hay, is nearly as welcome as the rising of the sun.

We feed heavy. Calories are heat. An apparent conversion. Extra hay and a concentrated pelleted feed. They endure, heads down, eyes not meeting with mine. Just surviving. They will eat. This will pass. They will make it through.

Only my little stallion seems to suffer. Born in California and raised in a protected stall, he seems to find this all so wrong. I think at times he is right. His coat is as thick as those born here, those who accept the cold blasts and biting winds without visible concern. It is an expected and tolerable part of life for them. As if they shrug their shoulders and acknowledge that which they can not change.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The value of the wild

We are blessed to live adjacent to the Weminuche Wilderness. Yes, that’s Wilderness with a capital W. A designated location, almost a half a million acres of what we otherwise may find a more productive use for. There is little value in peace and solitude. Can you place a price tag on “wild?” What is the value of the wild, except something deep and dark within us all? Something we often prefer to overlook.

Out here, out this far, there are fewer willing to find this place, find that space within themselves. As outfitters, we see that business is less and less in the back country. Far away is even further. Being out of touch is out of mind. Uncomfortable is not a chosen state. So fewer come. Beyond the trailheads easy to the masses to access, there is a reduction of use, especially in use beyond a short day’s hike.

Why should we care? I once received the response, “Gee, great, more for me.” That’s not the answer I hoped to hear.

Why aren’t we out there enjoying the wild more? Why don’t we care? Have we forgotten what it feels like, and what it can do for us deep down inside, and what it really means in the big picture?
Us back country users/enjoyers are getting greyer, and the younger generations aren’t going out there. Why not? If we can blame someone, do we blame ourselves, the parents and elders, who don’t make the time to take the kids on a pack trip, a camping weekend, or even a long Sunday hike? If they aren’t given the chance to be out there, how will they learn to appreciate the wild? How will they ever know how incredible it feels, smells, sounds, looks? There are some things that can not be replaced by the TV, the Game Boy, and Instant Messenger. Are we teaching our kids to sit and listen to stories, to walk in nature, to stop and listen and look and feel the beauty of the world around them? Is it too late?

Years ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to take small groups of kids from a summer camp out on pack trips. I truly believe each and every child who participated was touched in a way that would effect them forever – touched by nature, by wildlife, by the responsibility of caring for their horse and in turn, trusting the horse to care for them, by the camaraderie of such simple but true friendships that are built around camp fires and out gathering horses in the early morning dew. I wish more kids could have this experience. Children’s camp like that is usually limited in its scope and available only to an “elite few,” but as Forrest says, at least we had the chance to open this world up to those few.

Much of my outfitting work now is day rides with people who have never been on horse, or at least, never taught how to be on a horse. I am given the opportunity to share this with my guests, and then take them out to show them something even more: the mountains and trails and wild places all around us. Still, every time I take riders out, I am so excited when I return and tell Bob all about how wonderful this person did, how I watched him or her do so well with their horse, what a beautiful time I know they had, and most important, how special a day I was able to provide for them, what a world out there they got to experience that they didn’t know existed before that ride, or at least forgot, and needed this simple time in the saddle out there to remember. And yet, still, they remained so close to the comfort of the ranch, the road, the cabins. It is hard to venture far.

Less and less people know what it feels like. Being out in the wild just does something for a person. We touch the wild, and something wild within us stirs.

You know the old saying of “there is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of horse.” That’s a lot of it. But there’s more. There is nothing like waking in the morning to the crisp mountain air, and listening to the cow elk call her calf as you sit on the hillside and sip your coffee, to make you think about what really matters in this world. There is nothing like arriving at camp after a long day of hiking or in the saddle, and feel so at home, having “earned” your place relaxing by the campfire, to remind you of the simple pleasures in life. There’s nothing like seeing the stars out there, so far away, when you step away from the heat of the fire to feel your true place in this very big picture.

Nature is so important. And if we don’t use it, we could lose it. We will lose a part of ourselves if we forget or never know what it feels like. And we’ll risk losing the wild places. Will we then lose the wild part within us?

Man seems to feel that everything needs a purpose. If the purpose of the wilds is no longer valued for the irreplaceable goodness it provides for our body, mind and soul, then Man will probably put it to another use. Yes, our trails will be the first to go (we already have an ongoing struggle to keep them maintained). But then the wild places themselves may go – be sold off, sectioned off, a “better” use may be found.

I’m on my high horse here once again. OK, enough.

originally published February 2009 at

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Some thoughts on learning horse talk

And where do we go from here?

Tom Dorrance is often quoted as having said, “Listen to the horse. Try to find out what the horse is trying to tell you.”

But I’d like to know, how do we know what the horse is telling us until we learn to speak their language? I suppose it is easier for those born into the world of horses. That’s a great place to begin. However, for those who were not, those that sought horses on their own, and even (oh my!) not until adulthood, learning the language is more difficult. Just like learning a second language, it is of course possible, but how much easier when we are raised in a bi-lingual household!

That, my friend, is what makes a good teacher. One who can point out not only what the horse is saying, for those of us uncertain of the language, but also explain the language to us. Translate, if you please. And in time, we thus can learn to understand what the horse is saying.

It's not a matter of whispering. It's just learning to talk the horse's language. Our goal is to learn the language.

As Wendy Murdoch points out in her book, “Simplify Your Riding” (copyright 2004 by Wendy Murdoch), “The adage ‘the horse is your teacher’ is only useful if you understand what the horse is teaching. It is difficult to ‘let the horse teach you’ if you don’t know what the lesson is.”

I’m also pretty interested in Wendy’s point of view on “modern methods” of teaching in which the student/teacher/horse interact in a positive manner to achieve positive results, as opposed to “traditional methods of teaching people how to ride (which) include repetition, exhaustion, negative reinforcement, and domination…Yelling and screaming at students only drives them further into the undesirable pattern because when stressed we simply react, we don’t learn.”

I’d like to learn. I’ll choose my teachers accordingly.

Likewise, when I’m here to teach, I am learning to be a better teacher using the positive reinforcement, striving to increase both knowledge and confidence in my riders, and hopefully enjoying the process together!
Bill Dorrance stated with great importance in a special addition to his book, “True Horsemanship Through Feel” (copyright 2007 and 1999 by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond), “Horsemanship through feel is handed down from one friend to another.”
I’m looking for that friend. A good teacher should be that friend, or at least, assume the role of “friend” when working with you, teaching you the horses’ language that he or she may already have figured out (or, more than likely, been taught) pretty well.
Finding that teacher, or friend, is not as easy as I had hoped...

I intend to always be learning, to always be open to new ideas, and by golly, I’ll be one lucky lady if I can keep up with working with my horses long enough to accomplish half the goals I hope to achieve in terms of horsemanship.

I will never live long enough to do it all, master all, and certainly not know it all. I know of no one who has lived that long. What I can do is enjoy learning and continue trying. What more can we each ask for?

Time to get off my high horse…

I end with a quote I read recently, though I do not know its source:

"If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Why do we go there?

Why do we go there?
Out there with our horses?

I was giving some thought to this question, considering the feeling of being out there at camp with our horses in the high country. I lost myself in the reverie of sitting in the warm sun, my back against a large, smooth rock with a book in hand as my horses graze contentedly in the tall grass around me at the end of a long day in the saddle. Together, dreamily, we watch the shadow of the sun slowly falling behind the mountain, inching its way across the valley towards us.

It is far away now, that picture, as our world is white and frozen, our horses still shaggy, and morning temperatures still sinking below zero. But the feeling is very close. It is inside me, something I cherish, something I will always have with me.

I’ve discussed the “how to” of horse camping quite often and in details here, but more important to me, I consider the “why.”

The “how” enables us. The “why” drives us.

That “why” is a clear picture to me. It is the picture of traversing a narrow cliff on a surefooted horse and descending the rocky slope into a lush green valley, my horse and I, worn and tired but elated to be there. We pause, look about to notice the elk scatter before us under the shadows of red tail hawk circling high above. Then my horse lowers his head to taste the high mountain grass, and I dig into my saddle bag to pull out a snack. We remain there a moment before moving on. We savor the mountain together.

“Why” is much more than a picture. “Why” is a feeling. It is the feeling of camaraderie, of connection with our horses. We remain with them, partners, a team. Out there, we don’t leave them behind, put them back in the barn or turn them out to pasture until we need them next. We stick together, work together, get tired together, rest together, stop and enjoy the view together. We face challenges together not so different than the knight in shining armor heading into battle on his trusty steed. There is the essential element of trust. Neither of us would be there if not for the other. Together, we can conquer. The mountain. Our fears.

We return a different team, together, closer, more compassionate, more efficient, clearer in our communication and understanding with and of each other. And don’t tell me the horse doesn’t see that view. And feel the fresh air and dewy grass and comfort of the woods at night and warmth of the sun in the early morning and the coolness of the clear mountain stream, and the gentleness of my cheek as I rest my head across the low of his bare back in the evening sun as he stands out in the open field, very much at home with our horse and human herd, together in these wild open mountains.

They feel it too. I’ve had my horses run jubilantly, kicking up their heels in an uncontained joy if allowed, when then know they are almost to “their” favorite camp.

For most of us, horses are no longer a means to an end, a mode of transportation. Those that still treat their horses that way get what they ask for.

The trip is but the excuse. An excuse to be with our horses in a more intimate environment than anything we can find or create back home, at the barn or in the arena. Being out there, together. It’s as much, perhaps more, about the relationship with horse than it is about the journey. The horse therefore becomes the journey, more so than the places we pass through and the camp we arrive at together.

That is why we go there. To be out there with them. Out there with our horses. Enjoying the mountain, enjoying our horses, building trust, learning a quiet communication, creating a camaraderie and building companionship.

And of course, all along the way out there we can share the view and the wideness of our hearts and minds as we stop and stare at it... together.