I can still feel the dew from the grass as it seeps into my crepe sole Ariat’s and the jingling of my rowels as I made my way to the corral’s. The fog lifting from the stream and stocked ponds, and the sound of the mule’s gently munching their hay from the pack shed. Picking up a quick cup of coffee from the kitchen and making my way to the horses. No cell phone, no checking of email, no make up, huddled over in my Carhartt and pulling my hat down low to bring warmth to my ears. It would be July in Wyoming, but without the sun, the temperatures dipping into the low 30’s.
I would grab one of my string out from the corral, run a quick brush over where the saddle would sit, and throw up my Billy Cook. One-armed, with the other hand firmly grasping the warmth of my coffee mug, I would throw a head stall on, attach my rope, swing up, and head off at a slow jog up to the North Pasture. And as I crossed the same creek, with the fog swirling like ghosts leading me forth, I would stare ahead and take in the beauty of Fan Rock before me, and Seven Brothers behind. Not a word was spoken, except for the silent exchange of conversation between the horse underneath me and I.
As we climbed up the gentle incline from the ranch, various horses would lift their heads and inspect the movement with hesitancy. Some had stayed close to home, finding security in that comfort – while others had ventured up into the 600 acres in which we turned out on. Acknowledging that I had to get to the top fence in order to obtain them all, I would kick into a gallop, and head off.
The bitter cold air would hit me in the face, and yet heat came up through my muscles as they straddled the saddle and urged the horse on. It was usually my favorite – Headley, or my tried and true Azule. On off days, when these two were ridden hard and put away wet, it would be one of the young ones – Clover or 711. If I really was forced – it was Idaho or Casper, the only two on my string that I despised. The horses underneath me were interchangeable. All needed worked, and all earned their keep. Over rocky terrain, ditches and holes, drop off’s, ravines, flat ground, and rolling roller coasters. My 50 ft poly would softly smack their shoulder as they surged ahead, never stumbling, their feet carrying us safely and surely through the Big Horn’s.
And I would seek out the rest. Hiding in tree lines filled with the cream white of the aspen. Ambling behind rock ledges, standing in groups of two or three. There was no screaming, growling, or guttural noises made. Just an occasional cluck or smack on my thigh. Using the horse underneath me as horses were meant to be used – for work. For dominating other animals – cows, sheep, other horses.
A hundred horses would be gathered at this time, and begin their gradual descent to the corrals. Often, a herd of antelope would integrate in with the herd. Occasionally, an elk would be spotted on the higher spots. Staring you down, more inquisitive than scared. Acknowledge the silent confidence that was a horsemen on his mount. Assess you as you assessed him before swiftly and brilliantly spinning and galloping off. By the time the horses were moved back to the corrals, it would be around 6am – and the sun would be peaking behind the mesa.
Moving them into the corral, you would hear one person softly counting heads, assuring that all were accounted for. And I would step back off of my horse, lowering one foot gently down before the next. A rein looped around a post, and refill another cup of coffee. Still, not a word would have been said, nor a quick movement made. Slow and steady, calculated and accurate. No crinkling of peppermints, or rattling of grain inside of a bucket. The day brought in with the simple sounds of bales being cut open, hay being gently chewed, and the occasional squeal from an interrupted breakfast.
The job wasn’t all perfect, as the jingling ended, and quickly the day began. Horses were vetted and tacked up, guests were taken out on rides, and duties were assigned. Fences were fixed, logs were chopped, and hay was cut and baled.
Being a wrangler had its quirks and issues, but for those brief hours spent in the saddle alone in the Big Horns, as the sun creeped along the horizon – it was worth it.
Every year around this time, my heart begins to feel restless and my soul becomes discontent. It is like having your body pulled in two directions. East and West. Bluegrass and Big Horns. Chinks and riatas. Riding for competition or riding for purpose.
And yet seemingly, I have chosen. I sit here in Lexington, Kentucky – typing this on a computer. I stare out of my window and see a parking lot full of cars. Construction fills the air. I quickly spell out the methods used for my last research project, done on horses cared for just as I would in Wyoming, but without the access to just swing on and lope away. My days filled with science, school, deadlines and presentations. My brain dictating the journey that has lead me here.
But my heart is still there. My heart is searching for wide open spaces. My hands craving the calluses that only a rope can give. My arms weakened and unable to easily toss a 40 pound saddle up onto a back. My feet begging for the soft jingle of spurs instead of the embrace of custom tall boots. My core craving a ride longer than an hour and outside of the confines of an arena.
East and West. Yin and Yang. English and Western. Heart and Brain.
And me. One half always in the mountains, one in the arena. Never truly at peace, always wanting the other. One day, I’ll get back there. I promise you this.