The herd of horses gallop up the ranch lane in a clatter of hooves, snorts, and swirls of dust. Sorrel, palomino, dapple-gray, buckskin, and black blend in a multicolored tapestry. The moist, earthy aroma of horse fills the corral. This is the first of my six days at the Vee Bar Guest Ranch in Laramie, Wyoming, where I’ve joined 16 other women for a reading and writing retreat centered around horses. This morning I will meet “my” horse- the one I will ride all week. Secretly I hope for the gelding I’ve been eyeing, a golden sorrel with a broad white blaze. We all stand by the barn while our names are called, along with that of our horses. The I hear, “Pat… Basset Hound.”
A drab, gray horse about 15 hands high is led forward. My heart sinks. Someone says, “Oh, Pat, your hair matches!”
Yes, this is my 70th year, and this retreat is a birthday celebration to reconnect me with my youthful passion for horses. Well, appearances may not be indicative of personality; I walk toward Basset Hound and extend my hand toward his muzzle. He takes a perfunctory sniff and turns his head away. I finger his coarse gray-black mane and run my hand across his smooth, muscled neck. He is branded on the front left shoulder and right thigh, and scarred in numerous places.
“He’s new,” a wrangler offers. We just got him last Wednesday.” Then another cowboy looks over. “Watch him when you cinch the saddle. He tried to bite me yesterday.” My anxiety rises. In the 55 years since I’ve ridden with any regularity, I’ve forgotten quite a bit about how to handle a horse.
“Ready?” the wrangler prompts. I lift my gimpy left knee toward the stirrup. “Want to use the block?” I nod. Even with the steop up, it’s a long climb to the top of that equine’s back. Gone are the days when I could vault gracefully into the saddle. My stirrups are adjusted and I take the reins. Basset Hound turns his nose toward my knee and appraises me with his near eye.
Why would anyone name a horse Basset Hound? Does he have short legs and floppy ears? No. Is he calm and gentle? Apparently not. Is he inclined to laziness and overeating? Nix. He does have speckles on his gray body like a Basset Hound; that’s the only connection I can make.
The 16 of us are divided into smaller groups, and I join the beginners to ease back into the riding experience. Six of us accompanied by two wranglers, fore and aft, set off at a walk. Each guest is focused on her own mount; we are quiet. We move through a long pasture full of rocks. Grass is just sprouting in a late Wyoming spring, covering the flat field with a delicate chartreuse scarf. Tiny yellow flowers have begun to blossom across the landscape. A pin cushion cactus with one fragile pink bloom appears next to a rock. A brisk breeze whips across the meadow.
Basset lays his ears back as a pretty sorrel horse moves past. He swings his head from side to side and flattens his ears whenever successive horses change position in the group. When he crowds a blue-eyed paint too closely, the horse kicks. I’m nervous. I had described my age and lack of recent horse experience on the information sheet, so I expected to be paired with some sweet old campaigner. How come I got “the new horse,” yet to establish his relationship in the herd?
Well, I too am new; we are both “joining up,” as they say in cowboy lingo. I signed up for the retreat and drove to Wyoming on my own. Now I’m in an unknown setting and situation, just like Basset. How will I adapt? How will he?
“Want to trot?” the wrangler asks after an hour of walking. The rest of the small group assent. Sitting the trot and posting are explained. A slight nudge and Basset lurches into an uneven gait. It is jarring and I bounce high, grabbing the saddle horn. My butt bangs down repeatedly on the saddle. It somehow reminds me of white water rafting in the Grand Canyon; I feel the same fear of falling.
“Relax your legs,” the wrangler suggests. “Weight on the balls of your feet and loose legs.” He’s right. My legs are stiff, and when I dismount in the barnyard at the end of the ride, they collapse under me.
Next morning I rise early and with some misgivings head down to the corral to brush my horse. He’s inside being shod. I watch as Basset lets ranch manager pick up each leg, trim his hoof, and hammer on a new shoe. We talk.
“Am I the right person to ride this new horse? H seems aggressive with other horses. I’m an inexperienced old lady,” I venture. I am assured that Basset has been ridden continuously since his arrival and has never spooked or veered from the rider’s commands.
“I have reason to believe he’s a good horse,” the manager says. “The outfit I got him from has ranch horses that are used to working, not the kind from a dude string. Besides, they want my business.” I was reassured by the words and agreed to give Basset another try. I’m not one to give up easily. “We’ll watch you today and see how it goes,” he offers. “Then if you still feel uncertain, we’ll give you another horse.”
But the second day went better. Basset seemed to have come to an understanding with his fellow horses during the intervening night. He’s not reactive to others in the group, and flicks his ears to catch my tuneless humming. I begin to relax.
We don’t ride nose-to-tail like trail horses. The riding group spreads out at intervals across a pasture and trots across it. The rhythmic motion of the horse under me feels familiar. I move in sync with his walk. Basset is responsive. When I slow so as not to follow the piebald too closely, he responds. A huge jack rabbit jumps out of the brush; Basset just watches it. We approach the river; several riders are crossing ahead of us. Basset stops on the edge of the bank, swings his head up and down, and paws the dirt. I urge him forward. Swirling water rises up to my stirrups as he stops in the middle to drink. I tap him with my heels and he plunges up the bank. Good boy! I pat his neck.
The landscape stretches away like the palm of a hand. The Little Laramie River sings as it rushes along beside us. Budding cottonwood trees line the creek like soldiers in bright green uniforms. Birds twitter in the brush. In the shadows a new baby elk is struggling to stand up beside its mother. Cumulus clouds create changing patterns in the blue. In the distance a mesa outlines the far horizon. I breathe deeply into the open country.
Day 3 offers a ride to the top of a nearby mesa and even more challenging, an opportunity to lope. We spread out across a tree-lined byway close to the river. “Weight in the stirrups, lean back a little, and relax,” instructs our wrangler. Basset takes off in a high speed trot that has become easier to ride with each passing day.
Lurching into a lope is not the gentle gait I expected, and I grab the horn. Basset is enthused about the change in pace and surges to the front of the group. I pull him in; he responds to a gentle restraint and slows. Good boy! I am still in the saddle. Good girl!
As the days roll by I absorb the relaxed rhythms of the ranch. One day we have an opportunity to help work cattle. Calving season is in full swing, and our assignment is to locate a lame cow with ear tag #310, so she can be caught for treatment. We find her on the edge of the herd, and a cowboy singles her out and drops a lariat around her neck. When a wrangler’s horse “blows up” right in front of us, I turn Basset away from the flying hooves and he behaves like a gentleman. Good job.
I brush Basset daily, standing close beside him, his luminescent dark eyes with fringed, white lashes half closed in contentment. Feeling the large mass of his body under my hands I get lost in the moment, thinking of nothing else.
On the final morning Basset perks an ear when he hears my voice. I’m eager to lope again, and today we dance easily together in his rocking gait. When it comes time to say goodbye I linger, scratching the sweet spot on his withers. He stretches his neck and head out, wiggles his muzzle, and licks with his tongue in ecstasy. Everyone laughs. That’s my boy Basset!
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Previously published in Equus Magazine as “Come Together,” March 2012