The suburban’s headlights reflected on the eyes of the cowboy–and his horse–two figures, standing in utter darkness along a snow-covered dirt road. Nothing but a wind-swept landscape radiated for at least 25 miles in all directions, empty of all but canyons, mountain peaks, and elusive wild mustang herds. It was zero degrees. This guy–more like a specter–clearly needed some kind of help. I was riding in one of two carloads of horseback riders when we spotted him. We were traveling to a remote ranch in Montana to assist with a horse drive that would move over a hundred head for 50 miles to their winter pasture.
The first challenge was just getting to the ranch: a flight into Billings, then a drive through Lovell, Wyoming, a bumpy, fishtailing, 15 mph drive past the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, through a mustang preserve, and onto the Crow Indian Reservation. We hadn’t even gotten there yet and already a frozen cowboy was crawling onto the bench seat next to me.
We learned that his truck had gone off the road and gotten stuck several miles back. His friends stayed with the truck while he rode off on the horse, trying to find cell reception. Courtesy of Verizon, I was the only one in the group with a working cell. That’s why he was crawling in next to me.
“You must be freezing,” I said.
“Naw, I’m fine,” he replied, his teeth chattering and body shaking.
My mom instincts were on full alert now. “Okay. How about some water? At least take this candy bar? You could use some calories to stay warm.”
“Thank you, ma’am, but I’m not hungry.”
For a brief moment, I thought of giving the candy bar to his horse since he was having to put up with these humans. If I had been standing in zero degree darkness and someone had offered me a candy bar, I would have put it in my mouth before they finished their sentence. But that’s me.
After he made his phone call for help, we honored his request and let him go, without the candy bar. We drove on to the ranch and left him to start his horseback journey back to the snowbound truck.
All the way down to the DNA level, I have wanted to live a life where horses are necessary. By necessary, I mean that horses are respected for their intelligence and their power, a life where they are partners in getting some sort of work done–getting from point A to point B, moving other animals, dragging logs, plowing fields. I could go on.
I grew up knowing horses only in the context of competitive sport–running, jumping, or moving in what were considered perfect ways. Ribbons and trophies. That sort of thing. My room was papered with them. That type of horsey life made me feel like I was close to something, but not quite there.
This yearning for horses-as-partners led me to journey through the dark to this ranch in Montana. I had carved a week out of my crazy life, left all the tumult behind, and took off on this somewhat intimidating adventure.
Morning brought frozen pipes in the cookhouse, ice coating the insides of windows, and news of a looming snowstorm. When we rolled out of bed, our boots clattered on the frozen, bunkhouse boards. Crossing the yard and walking along the stream bed to the cookhouse, our footsteps squeaked on the fresh snow. The black-and-white herd dogs on the steps were curled up so tightly that neither their feet nor noses were visible.
With accents from Louisiana, France, Wales, Germany, and North Carolina, we chattered back and forth over the wooden, farmhouse table. The diverse group started to bond over the food. Never was a mug of coffee more welcome. Never did hot cereal and scrambled eggs slide down so easily. I hadn’t even been on a horse yet and my appetite felt like it had doubled.
Although our assignment for the week was to move the ranch’s horse herd from their Montana summer pasture to the Wyoming winter pasture, there was another matter that needed settling first. We were experiencing a literal invasion of cattle. The unseasonably early cold and snowfall had driven the cattle down from their Pryor Mountain pastures. They wanted to move to lower elevation. They had pushed over fences, jumped fences, and generally were making a run for somewhere less Arctic.
By the dozens, they stood, lowing loudly. And the herd was growing by the hour. The worst part was, they didn’t all belong to the same ranch. They were all mixed together and needed to be separated.
Not surprisingly, before we left on the horse drive, ranchers wanted to know whether or not people can really ride as well as they said they could. Turning back the cattle invasion on horseback would be a good way to check us out. But before we rode, we had a lecture about the design and management of cattle brands and the colors of ear tags. We had no idea how it would dominate the next day and a half of our lives.
I have yet to meet a professional cowboy who uses many words. This would hold true here as well. Once the horses were saddled up, we were pointed toward the one that we were to ride. My horse’s name was “Jerry,” or that’s the name that was given to him in the moment anyway. Hand gestures told us to mount up and head toward the meadows above the ranch.
While our lead cowboy shot off on the most athletic quarter horse I have ever seen–I swear it literally flew–we were left divining what Jake wanted us to do. Which cattle should we herd? What direction should we take them? How fast did he want us to push them? So part of the test involved mind reading, apparently.
By the time we had pushed the literal sea of black angus cattle down to the holding pens in the ranch yard, we had figured out our roles and our mounts. While we took a quick lunch break, the sky lowered and started to dump snow. By the time we mounted up again, we could barely see the canyon walls that ringed the ranch.
Our afternoon job was to push hundreds of cattle–ten at a time–through a narrow chute where they could be sorted by brand. The corral mud was deep and heavy. The cattle were clever. They didn’t want to be moved. Or separated. One could hardly blame them. The air was so choked with snow that we could barely see. The cattle, the horses, the riders, the cowhands sorting cattle–they were all heavily blanketed in white. The cattle wanted to hunker down and shelter with the herd.
Yet, my “Jerry” was possibly the most gifted athlete I had ever ridden. It felt like riding a ballerina who could jeté in any direction at a moment’s notice. In deep mud, no less. For hours, we separated groups of ten, drove them through the chute, and the ranchers squinted at brands and ear tags through driving snow. In the end, over 500 of the neighbor’s cattle were shunted off into a different corral. About 100 of our ranch’s were in the other. A few grey bunnies and a pursuing coyote were darting through the snow and deepening gloom.
A horse would lose its life today. We didn’t know that when we started our second day of herding cattle. The storm had turned the ranch into a sparkling white snow globe, a spectacle tailor made for a Montana tourism video. It was -8 degrees and the cookhouse pipes were still frozen. Despite the Arctic freeze, we needed to drive “our” cattle back up to high pasture for another week until it was their turn to be driven to Wyoming.
So up the mountain we went, the cattle complaining the entire way. The sky was blue, the sun blinding, the ground white and the cattle black. It was like riding through some kind of stark photo filter. The breath of horses, dogs, riders, and cattle alike froze in throats.
Once we had pushed the cattle past a fence line and shut the gate behind them, it was time to find the herd of horses that we were going to drive to Wyoming and bring them down to the ranch for the night.
When we found them, my first impression was that their thick, furry coats were glorious again the white snow, red rock outcrops, and blue sky. Looking over them, we felt giddy.
But quickly gloom descended on our group as we discovered a filly in the herd who had broken her leg in the slippery conditions. None of us were packing a gun and couldn’t put her out of her misery right away. It was agony to drive the horses downward and have her toddle after us on three legs. Even over many years, it’s a rare and tragic occurrence for a horse to break its leg out in pasture.
A pall hung over us for the rest of the day, even after she had been put out of her suffering. Behind all of the glorious magazine-worthy photos and videos, we were reminded that this work involved life and death and that cowboying is a hard and dangerous job. This wouldn’t be the last incident of the trip.
Altogether, we had moved about three quarters of a million dollars worth of cattle; the cattle from the adjoining ranch were penned up and awaited their owner to come fetch them. I wasn’t exaclty sure what that fetching would look like, but I would know soon.
How one dresses for a fifteen-mile horse ride with a -20 degree windchill: fleece pants, jeans, chaps, two pairs of wool socks and foot warmers in the cowgirl boots, three wool shirts, a down jacket, a gortex wind layer, ear band, cowgirl hat, muffler, and leather gloves with hand warmers. That’s what I was wearing on the wildest and most breathtaking ride of my life. And I still ended up cold before the day was done.
This was the first day of the herd’s three-day journey to their winter pasture. But a sobering lecture warned us how much harder it would be to herd these horses than it had been to herd cattle. The point driven home? “Don’t let them get ahead of you, but you can’t outrun them either.” And, “Be the boss.” Okay, got it. These were the most succinct instructions one could ever receive and they were spot on.
So I spent the day with my head on a swivel– because the views of the snow-covered mountains, canyons and plains were one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen–and because I was one of the riders assigned to stay ahead of the herd.
Remember, you can’t outrun them, but you have to hold them back. The packs of yearlings started to resemble gangs after a few miles–always rushing forward and trying to duck around us. Then there was the lead gelding, a blue roan Belgian-thoroughbred cross named Lightning, who incessantly pressured us to take the lead. He was breathtakingly beautiful enough that I could imagine moving there, just for him.
Call it a five-hour effort to prevent a horse mutiny from taking us off course. When I close my eyes and immerse myself in this memory, this is what comes: blinding whiteness, bone-sawing cold headwind, silent galloping on snow, horse breaths that freeze mid air, glances between riders that checked to see if we were still alive and acknowledged that we had never been so alive.
A few hours into the ride, we overtook the hundreds of angus that had once been corralled at the ranch. Their owners had showed up and were herding them on foot, with the help of a few dogs. At first, we were told to lead the horses up a hillside and go around the cattle. Once we started to do that, Jake changed his mind.
“Go right through them!” he shouted.
“What?” three of us asked, in unison.
“Right down the middle of ‘em. Go!”
We looked at each other and shrugged. A sea of black cattle spread before us. But, okay. You’re the boss. And through them we went.
We finally left the wind-swept plains behind us and wound down through pinyon forest. Our destination for the day’s end was a spacious BLM corral (Bureau of Land Management) with a water source. By the time we reached it, our fingers had frozen into claws. We nearly cried with gratitude for the hot potato soup and coffee that were served from the back of a suburban. The horses were equally excited for the towering stack of bright green hay bales that rolled in on a flatbed for them.
We thought that we had put the most difficult day behind us, but we were wrong about that. It would be the next day.
It was obvious at breakfast that the ranchers were nervous about the day ahead. When they were nervous, we were nervous. It was too icy to drive and too icy to navigate the terrain on horseback. But the BLM had shut the water off for the season at the overnight horse pen. Awesome timing. There was no more water for the horses. We had to keep the herd moving downhill to its next stop.
The brutal cold delayed our departure by a few hours. The ranchers hoped that the ice would soften. But 2 PM was awfully late to start a ten-mile plus journey with a herd of horses. The suburban fishtailed through snow and ice to drop us off at the corral. The herd knew that they were moving on and they were ready.
In order to reach our trail, we followed the main road through the mustang preserve for a couple of miles. With cliffs on one side and canyons on the other, there was little choice but to stay on the road itself. Yet three quarters of the road surface was covered with ice. We threaded our way carefully from bare spot to bare spot along the road edge. The few in the herd who challenged our lead found themselves with four hooves skating in all directions. They finally resigned themselves to follow. This made “being the boss” a whole lot easier. For the time being anyway.
We finally reached the trail that diverged from the road and descended into what some called “Horse Thief Canyon.” Once the only road into the ranch, you would never believe that now. Floods have carved down through the former dirt road and pinched it into a narrow slot canyon. Threading this canyon under icy conditions was the other source of anxiety. We had been warned of a four-foot ledge that we all needed to drop down over. With normal footing, this wouldn’t be scary, but the ice made the risk of falling high.
My mount for the day was a sturdy chestnut named Smitty who was a veteran of this trail. Should I ride him over the drop off, or should I dismount and lead him over it? Experience was telling me that there were pros and cons to both options. If I rode him and he slipped and fell, he could land on me, pinning me under him. If I dismounted, he might manage the ice better, but if he fell–or leapt to get over the ledge–then he could still land on me. Then there was the matter of the whole herd behind, still pressing forward. It didn’t leave time for indecision nor slow transitions on and off the saddle.
I decided to bet on Smitty’s maturity and chose the latter option. I dismounted. He wouldn’t jump on me if he could possibly avoid it. I dismounted, jumped down over the icy ledge with reins in hand, and prayed he didn’t fall. He slid and lurched down heavily to flat ground. I could feel my heart in my throat. Smitty hadn’t taken two steps and I had remounted, trying to stay ahead of the herd pushing from behind. I was through the narrow bottleneck.
My fears about the dangers of falling proved true just a few minutes later. A young horse, ridden by one of our guide cowboys, misjudged how to navigate a large boulder in the trail. I had just turned my head to look behind me and so I saw the gelding behind me awkwardly straddle a boulder and then fall down, pinning the rider’s leg against the rock. Never have I seen a horse pop up so quickly and with such little effort. He couldn’t have been down for more than a couple of seconds, but it was enough to break the poor cowboy’s foot (something we didn’t know for sure until the next day).
By the time we had all cleared the canyon, the herd was frustrated and pushing the leads hard, so we took off at a roaring trot across now-dry red desert terrain, leaving the snow and ice behind us. The sagebrush smelled heavenly and the views of the Pryor Mountains were gorgeous. When we reached the next fence line and cattle grate, we were feeling exuberant and accomplished.
But then the riderless horse galloped up next to us.
Oh, god. Not good. Whose horse was that? Green pommel bags. Which of us had green pommel bags? I could think of two riders. But when Rhian showed up to alert us about the other rider being on foot, we knew which of us it was, but not why it had happened.
I jumped down and caught the reins of the riderless horse and handed them to Jake who galloped back to find our friend. Turns out, he had dismounted after the canyon, lost his footing and stumbled, at which point the horse yanked the reins and took off without him. We were relieved to find he had not been thrown; all was well once he was reunited with his mount.
It was dark by the time we reached the horse holding pen for the night. One truck rolled up full of hay. Another carried a giant tank full of water.
Thirty miles down. One more day of the drive to go.
Unplugged. Alive. Free. Connected to nature and animals. Part of a team and part of something bigger than myself. A competent horsewoman who, unbelievably, did not feel sore. This was how I felt on the last day of the horse drive.
Our destination for the last day was Lovell, Wyoming and the weather couldn’t have been more different. Forgiving. We were treated to bare-handed and jacket-free riding for the first time. It was sunny. The ground was dry. We took the time for a group photo as we saddled up. It all felt gentle. Easy. Our smiles were broader, our gait more confident.
As we left the overnight holding paddock, we were as synchronized as a team. We pointed the herd across a broad plain, dodging fragrant sagebrush or the occasional deep gullies that knifed down through the bentonite clay. This felt relaxed. But, of course, the herd and the task at hand kept it from staying that way.
The older members of the herd recognized that this gently sloping plain was taking them downhill to their winter home where lower-altitude grassy pastures awaited them. They trotted faster. And then faster. They pushed us and tried to evade.
As we ascended a small ridge, we didn’t know that the view would cut off the breath. Snow-covered mountains ringed the horizon in all directions–Pryor, Beartooth and Bighorn Mountain ranges. We could nearly see all the way to Yellowstone. But the horses kept pushing. Any photos were quickly snatched from the saddle while on the go.
We knew we neared Lovell when the smokestack of the bentonite plant appeared, pointing skyward like a rocket on a launchpad. Bentonite clay is named after Benton, Wyoming and so the mining and processing of it is big business here. When we intersected the access road to the plant, we herded the horses into a large holding pen to sort them.
At the time, we didn’t understand why we had to separate the few that were lame or old or struggling to maintain a pace. We knew only that they were going to be trailered the last leg of the trip.
We soon figured out why that was necessary.
Once we started the herd down the access road to the bentonite plane, our only option was to drive them on the tar surface or sometimes along the grassy roadside. Semi- and eighteen wheeler truck traffic was heavy. The workers at the plant stopped and took pictures of us. The truck drivers also stopped–thankfully– and videoed us from their truck cabs with their phones as we passed them.
But then we hit the main road that passes through Lovell and the pace and mood shifted dramatically. Cars and trucks on the main road found themselves swallowed up by the surging herd–a blob of hooves, twitching tails, and whinnies. To limit the amount of time we were blocking traffic, we started to MOVE, setting a bold pace past mailboxes, side streets, homes, and pasture gates.
Even with two ranch vehicles leading and following the herd with blinking lights, some drivers did not want to slow down for us. They cut around us and kept going.
What I thought would be a short stretch of road turned into an hour of hard road riding at a breathless pace.
Once we reached our destination–the Val Halla of grassy pastures– the horses dove for the grass and drank deeply from a stream. As for our weary mounts, they rolled in the dirt as soon as we took off their saddles and set them free.
I was reluctant to let go of mine, knowing that unsaddling him was the beginning of saying goodbye to all of it. This week was not a vacation. It was not a rest. It was medicine. A week of living where horses were necessary. A salve for my soul.
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Patricia Erikson blogs about Maine writers, travel, and science from the award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, follow her on Instagram at @seashorewrite or subscribe to Peaks Island Press in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com
Categories: Travel & travel writing