Sunday, July 30, 2006

Potato Peak

Sunday July 30 2006

Not far from the old historic mining ghost town of Bodie is Potato Peak. Today we trailered the three horses up the rocky Aurora Canyon road, and parked at a 4-wheel drive trail that branched off toward Potato Peak. Starting at 7700’, we started a climb up from the canyon – up and up and up, 2000’, to the saddle right below Potato Peak. Raffiq was raring to go – it was a new trail for him, and he hadn’t been out on yesterday’s hard ride. (Instead, he’d spent that time running around his pen screaming for his two companions for 3 hours, so said an irritated neighbor.) We trotted up through sagebrush covered, aspen sprinkled hills, flushing quail left and right. Old mine claims dotted the hills. The Bridgeport valley and reservoir unfolded out far below us, and the still-snow-capped peaks of the Sierras spread out to the west, at what looked like eye level (some peaks there reach to 12,000’). Moving up one of those distant canyons toward us was… a storm! But surely it was too early in the day for thunderstorms! They usually don’t start building until about 2 PM, and we hadn’t had any in the last 7 days – but even so, I kept a slightly anxious eye over my shoulder at the darkening sky. I didn’t worry too much because we didn’t hear thunder – or, rather, the girls didn’t tell me they heard thunder. I can’t hear the low frequencies of rumbling thunder until it’s too late and the storm is just about upon me. Maybe they heard it and just didn’t tell me, knowing how chicken I am of lightning. We were high and exposed, so it’s a place you definitely don’t want to be during a lightning storm, and, in fact, we’ve twice avoided this trail for thunderstorms building at the times we wanted to try it.

Today, though, it was just a rain storm blowing eastward, and it passed just south of us, and all we got was a few sprinkles – we got a few sprinkles, a resultantly cool day, and a marvelous view from the saddle at 9600’ to the west and east. Soaring above us near the top were two golden eagles and a prairie falcon.

We wound our way back down the backside of Potato Peak, into a small valley above the Aurora road, where the horses happily stopped to assist the cows in purging the pasture of some of its rich grass.

We finished our 10 mile loop in 2 ½ hours, another good climbing training ride for the weekend. Eastern High Sierra Classic, here we come!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Water Horse

Saturday July 29 2006

The Eastern High Sierra Classic endurance ride here in Bridgeport is coming up in 3 weekends. The weekend after that is the Tour de Washoooo near Carson City. Gretchen and I are still aiming for the Virginia City 100 in the middle of September with Raffiq and Spice, so we plan to do both of these rides.

The EHSC is one of the prettiest endurance rides in the West – although in 6 years of endurance riding, I really haven’t met a ride I didn’t like yet. This one has some big climbs and spectacular views from up high of Twin Lakes, and of the impressive Sawtooth ridge, and of beautiful Buckeye Canyon of the eastern Sierras.

Spice and Raffiq will do the 50 mile ride; Buddy will attempt the limited distance (LD) 30 mile ride with Sue. Buddy makes a nice trail horse, but he just isn’t going to make an endurance horse. He’s too heavy-going, not real athletic; he has a slow trot and slower walk. He’s a paint, and looks more like a stout quarter horse than anything Arabian. But he’s fit enough to do the 30 mile ride; the question is: will he cross the creeks?

He’s had some trouble with certain creek crossing upon occasion. And upon those occasions, he’s won – we’ve had to turn around or change routes, because it was at a place where it was just not safe to try to force him across, and the rider had no whip or spurs to help encourage forward motion.

Gretchen put the spurs on last week as we did the second half of the LD ride, which crosses Buckeye Creek twice, once downstream, and a deeper crossing further up the canyon. But Buddy had no troubles then, and she barely had to touch his sides with the spurs, or use the whip. You just never know when he’s going to refuse, or, you just don’t know if he’s fully aware his rider has extra encouragements aboard! You don’t need to beat him with the whip or kick him with the spurs; if he refuses and starts to back up, you just touch him with either, telling him he can’t back up. He can stop, or he can step forward, but he must continue facing the obstacle, and he can’t back up; you let him decide that he wants to cross. That way you aren’t beating him forward, you aren’t making the decision for him.

Today we did the first half of the LD loop, one we’d been avoiding with Buddy, because there is a rushing stream at the top we had to cross, and we were pretty certain it was one that Buddy wasn’t going to like. I rode him today, armed with whip and spurs. We three girls were joined by 3 others; Jennifer was on a 6-year old gelding she’d only had for 6 months, and this was his first ride out in a group. She wasn’t sure whether or not he’d take to big river or rushing creek crossings either.

All went well till we got to the big rushing creek. To cross this one, you have to walk down a short slope and find your way blindly through some willows (Jackie and Gretchen trimmed them back some), and then suddenly there is your rushing 10’ wide creek at your feet. This didn’t bother Star or Spice or Brownie, but it did bother Jennifer’s horse. I kept Buddy back – he had his nose buried in grass – while her horse refused again and again and again to get near the creek. Megan rode Brownie back through the water to us, then she turned Brownie back around, walked back into the creek, and Jennifer moved her horse right in after, his nose on Brownie’s butt. I did the same with Buddy – put his nose right on the gelding’s butt, and without having to touch Buddy with the spurs, he followed them right across, not even jumping or flinching when his feet touched the water.

Gretchen and I have decided he’s just being stubborn about crossing those certain streams – he’s certainly not afraid of them.

Having accomplished that, Buddy is now ready to do the LD in the EHSC in 3 weeks!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Happy Happy Horses

Saturday July 22 2006

Well, maybe they weren’t so excited when I backed the trailer up and we caught all of them, but when I hauled the 5 of the Forest Service horses up the narrow winding Sonora Pass road (nerve-racking) to the parking lot by Leavitt Meadows Pack Station, they knew where they were and where they were headed.

I rode my buddy Paiute, led a lightly loaded Tom and Zak, followed by a naked Brenda the mule; Leeann followed on old Red Top. It was another warm muggy day – thunderstorms building at our back – as we wound our way 10 miles up the West Walker river trail. When we were 20 minutes from Piute cabin and meadows, past the last fork in the trail, the horses’ pace quickened, because they knew how close they were to paradise!

We got to the cabin, unpacked and unsaddled the horses, and turned them all loose together – they didn’t know WHERE to go first! They bolted for the meadow, then did a U-turn and ran back up to the dirt corral, where they all got down and rolled the sweat and grime and mosquitoes off – then they all leaped up and galloped back into the meadow – bucking, snorting, farting, leaping and striking, tails over their backs. They’d stop and drop their mouths to the knee- high grass, then bolt off at a canter again to another spot, then eat, then bolt off again. Then they took off at a dead run down into the far meadow. That just made my summer, watching those happy horses.

The horses had their meadows, we had Paiute cabin. It’s such a wonderful place to stay, not only for its beautiful setting in this wilderness meadow, but for the soul it possesses. Those of us who get to stay here still follow the last ranger’s routines and traditions. He revered the place, and we do too. We cook and keep the cabin clean the way he did; we appreciate the rock art and the feathers and pine cones he decorated the place with. There’s still a treasure trove of reading material in the shelves to pass the evenings: Rock and Ice magazines; journals from old rangers from the 80’s; reference books on birds, grasses, stars, wildflowers, insects, the atmosphere, shrubs, geology; bios of Miles Davis and Georgia O’Keefe; books by JRR Tolkien, Mary Renault (her historical fiction books on Greece are brilliant), Hemingway, Thoreau, Faulkner.

We had rip-roaring thunderstorms both afternoons for entertainment (morning two we took two horses and scouted passable trails and future wildlife survey areas); the horses weren’t budging from their beloved meadows for some puny lightning bolts or pelting rains.

Morning of day three we packed up to leave, and I had a little harder time catching the horses. The first morning I’d had to hike to the far end of the meadows a half mile away to even find them, but they came running at my whistle, and ran on past me up to the corral at the cabin. This last morning, they popped out of the woods at my whistle, and started trotting toward me… and then they all became suspicious, and only Brenda trotted up to me (she loves treats – oats and alfalfa cubes and such). I slipped a halter on her (she almost leaped away at the last minute) and led her on toward the cabin… and the other horses just stopped and ate grass and watched us. They knew what was up, and they didn’t want to leave! Now, if you’ve ever tried to lead a mule where a mule doesn’t want to go, you will know that you can’t do it. I led Brenda back closer to the herd, then turned her back around toward the cabin… and she let me do it, because fortunately she really really loves those treats I’d put in the corral for them, and she knew that routine from the many summers of the last ranger’s custom.

Finally the other horses followed, and they all headed for the corral, and we penned them up – all but Paiute. I just love Paiute – though sometimes, well, most of the time, he’s impossible to catch. I’ve often chased that butthead for 45 minutes in a big pasture before I could catch him. This time I chased him for 5 minutes before throwing a halter at his big butt, whacking him hard, after which he apologetically stopped for me. Once you do catch him, he dunks his head into the halter. I even gave him some undeserved treats as I saddled him.

The horses were quite bummed as we saddled and loaded them; their footsteps were reluctant as I led the string out of Paiute Meadows. Paiute was spooking at everything on the way out: lying logs, sticks, rocks, chipmunks, Horse-Eating little birds, shadows. But I still just love this horse – overlooking his spooking (which amounts to no more than jumps; he doesn’t wheel or try to run off), he’s a super horse to ride or pack with – as are all of our horses. Tom and Zak traipsed steadily and faithfully behind Paiute, and Brenda at the end of the string danced along naked, grabbing grass and mule’s ears all the way out. Red Top, carrying Leeann, brought up the rear (eating dust). It’s going to be awful hard for me, missing these horses, if I don’t have a job here next year.

Back home, I gave them what they deserved: hugs (Paiute didn’t run from me), thanks for
their great dispositions and faithful service, a bucket of oats (I had to sprint for the feeder so they wouldn’t run me over), and a promise that I’d try to get them back to Paiute meadows this summer.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Piute Bound

Wednesday July 19 2006

Afternoon thunderstorms, fires all around; tomorrow my boss and I are headed into the backcountry with the Forest Service horses for a few days for some trail and wildlife surveys. (Actually ‘fires all around’ is an exaggeration – there’s a big one 20 miles away on our district, though we are having some wicked afternoon thunderstorms.)

We’ll be based out of Piute cabin, an old 1940’s cabin 12 miles back into the Hoover Wilderness that sits on an edge of a meadow, with craggy peaks framing the other end of the valley. The cabin itself oozes rugged charm and character for its lucky human occupants, and the horses love it out there – in the past they spent a lot of summers living in and working out of Piute meadows. Back when the FS had money to actually hire full-time summer rangers (now we have only 1 part-time, half summer), one was based out of the cabin, and he used the horses to get around to do his rangering, and he did all the packing for the trail crew. The horses get turned out in the big meadow when they aren’t working.

Last year I packed my fish crew into the Hoover once, and was able to take three of the horses to stay overnight at Piute Meadows and cabin. I didn’t think I’d ever catch them again to saddle up in the morning, and I had to really drag them away from their beloved meadows.

We won’t need but two riding horses and one pack horse, but I plan to take them all in as a treat. Tom hasn’t seen Piute meadows for several years, as last year he had an injured foot. I imagine tomorrow about 1 PM he’s going to be one happy horse – as are the other 4.

I only hope I can catch all five of them when it’s time for us to leave this time, or we’ll be hoofing it out on our human feet!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Blue Toe Blues

Sunday July 16 2006

Well, it wasn’t pretty, and it didn’t feel good this morning, but, I was able to get a shoe on my left foot over my blue and purple and red and black little toe, and I was able to ride! I let Gretchen fetch the horses; I hobbled around saddling Spice, and Gretchen loaded her and Buddy. We hauled down to our usual parking spot, and waited for Jackie to ride and meet us on Star. Today we were doing the lower Buckeye loop, meaning Buddy would be crossing Buckeye Creek at a new crossing, and he’d be going over a bog. There are some creek crossings that he just has refused to cross, and whoever was riding him at the time didn’t have extra encouragement along. Today I wasn’t going to be able to use my left leg much, so Gretchen rode Buddy, putting on a pair of spurs, and carrying a whip for forward encouragement, if necessary.

My foot didn’t give me too much grief (much less pain riding than walking) as we trotted up the Buckeye road and through the campground, heading for the creek crossing, and then on up Buckeye Canyon. It was a warm day, but we had a stiff breeze blowing up the canyon. There’s still a ton of snow on the peaks – hard to believe, as hot as it’s been the last week. Star kept up a good trot along the trail, and Spice and Buddy, used to plodding along with Raffiq, had no trouble keeping up with her. They all took turns in the lead, and all was well in the canyon of Buckeye.

All was well with Spice, till we came upon the cows grazing back there. Now, Spice had lived with cows a couple of summers, but these cows for whatever reason unnerved her. Maybe she had hated living with stupid stinky squirty cows, and she was afraid we were going to turn her back out with these.

When we got to where we cross upper Buckeye Creek, where we normally stop for a horse snack in the grass, or a picnic, it was filled with cows. Big cows, little cows, and a big bull. Spice was getting more and more freaked as we got closer to them, and she tried to hide close to and under Star and Buddy. Now Buddy, who had never crossed this part of the creek, we thought might give Gretchen some trouble, but he walked right on in (no encouraging aids necessary), followed by a near panicked Spice, who practically leaped onto Buddy’s back to get away from the cows. Only problem was, there were more cows where we had to climb out of the creek, and she had to walk by those stupid stinky squirty cows too. We left all those bovines behind at the creek, but now Spice was convinced a Horse-Eating Cow was going to get her from behind. She kept spooking, and goosing forward, and running up on top of Star’s butt. I kept talking to her and telling her she was fine, but she was sure I was so wrong.

Then we came to a nasty boggy spot in the trail – a new place, that the high river had caused – and it was strewn with mud-drowning logs and sticks, and was full of ankle-sucking mud, and it very probably had some Horse-Eating Cows either under the mud or waiting to spring on unsuspecting horses from behind. Spice was afraid to step in the bog, started to panic, didn’t know whether to leap forward or rear or spin (but the Horse-Eating Cows were still behind her) and finally she leaped forward and pronged through the bog in a panic like a springy antelope. Meanwhile, it’s been ol’ Buddy in the lead, walking forward tranquilly as if he’d been crossing rushing creeks and bogs all his life, followed by a calm Star.

Finally after a mile or two Spice calmed back down and I was able to pay more attention to the trail. It’s been a year since I’ve been on this trail on horseback, and that last time, Gretchen and Hiromi and I were saving the life of a very dear endurance horse, Zayante, who had suddenly colicked badly back there at the creek crossing. We had 6 traumatic miles of leading him back to the vet check – he kept trying to go down on us, and by the time we did get him to the vet, he was in terrible shape. (Another chapter in my book). In the end, he lived (and now he’s a big white healthy retired butterball endurance horse), but bad images kept flashing back to me of that ride – certain turns in the trail, where Zayante almost went down, places where I just didn’t think I could keep holding him up anymore, where I just didn’t think we were going to make it, where I thought Zayante was just going to die out there.

But anyway, Zayante made it that day, and today we had a fun zippy ride along the trail that successfully replaced some of those uncomfortable memories.

My toe hurt the whole ride, but nothing like yesterday, (and of course I forgot to take ibuprofen this morning), and it was all bearable… until a tree grabbed my foot. A little Jeffrey pine, just the wrong size - as tall as my ankle, sort of ran into my left foot as Spice breezed by it. The thought crossed my mind that I should left my foot out of the way, but I didn’t, and had to yelp us all to a walk for a few minutes.

Pain abated, and foot carefully repositioned in the stirrup, we continued trotting-cantering on down the trail, back to our trailer, just about when it was getting too hot to be riding. A nice 15 mile loop, with a great showing by Buddy. Now we just have one more iffy rushing creek crossing to get him across, and he’ll be able to do the limited distance ride here August, the Eastern High Sierra Classic, one of the more scenic rides around.

Me, I slithered off Spice at the trailer and couldn’t put my foot down for a while. Gretchen got to unsaddle and load the horses up, while I sat like a queen on my throne. I’ve got my blue-black toe on ice while writing this. Maybe I should go ahead and soak my right foot in Epsom salts, as with the extra weight I’m putting on it hobbling around, it’s getting sore now too. Hmmm… don’t think I’ll be able to get my hiking boots on this week. Maybe I can change all my hikes to rides?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Seeing Stars on a Moonlight Ride

Saturday July 15 2006

Today we three girls and Gretchen’s horses got dropped off at 8 AM 2 miles from Bodie – a picturesque old mining ghost town, now a State Park; we were headed to Bridgeport on back roads, 20 miles away. It was a gorgeous morning, cool, slight breeze, no traffic. We trotted up the bumpy dirt road into and around Bodie, and headed for a cow trail we knew that would lead us to the Geiger Grade road, an old mining road that still connects Bodie with the old ghost mining town of Aurora.

To get to the cow trail, we had to walk to a gate, past a number of trailers and tents. No way Spice and Raffiq were going to pass those quietly (Buddy probably wouldn’t have minded), so, instead of trying to force them past and getting dumped on my head, I got off, as did Gretchen and Sue. Usually when you get off a horse when he is scared of something, he suddenly calms down, since now you are the one who will get eaten first by the Horse-Eating-Tents (or HE-Willows, Rocks, Chipmunks, etc). Spice and I followed Raffiq, who, since Gretchen would have gotten eaten first, was unconcerned with anything but trying to snitch grass along the way. Same with Spice.

And then – I saw stars. Spice spooked at I have-no-idea-what, suddenly jumped sideways, and when she landed on my left little toe, she used it as a springboard to throw her whole body backwards from the Horse-Eating-Whatever.

“Oh, ouch, fuzzbuckets, you darn silly female horse,” I commented, as I doubled over with my foot in the air. Well, that isn’t exactly what I said, and I didn’t exactly just comment. It was a doozy – I stood there for several minutes, couldn’t even put my foot down, I handed Spice off to Gretchen, and they continued on with the horses to the gate 50 yards away…

Fifty long yards… of course I was going to make it, because what else was I going to do? Our trailer was long gone, and I knew once I got on the horse I would be okay (hadn’t thought about the foot in the stirrup part yet). It was too nice a day not to ride! I put my foot on the ground… but could not put any weight on it for another few minutes. Then I tried, and, oh my, what a moaning groaning whining pathetic soul I was. Tears squeezed out of my eyes, as it felt like knives stabbing my toe, the pain running up my leg to my thigh. I had to stop several times and regroup.

Well anyway I finally made it, and managed to mount up (from the off-side, see why I like horses who accept this?) without too much problem. But then – oh yea, getting the foot in the stirrup. That wasn’t pretty, or fun, for the first hour, especially while trotting. More stabbing pains, grabbing the saddle horn, swallowing a cry, riding without stirrups (too bumpy – my legs aren’t that strong), riding Spice crookedly, with more weight on the right side. But – we couldn’t walk the whole way, we still had 20 miles to go! At least I wasn’t doing 75 miles today (like we were supposed to do today up north, but the ride got cancelled). That might have tested my mettle and my enthusiasm and seriousness for endurance riding.

We wove along the cow trails – minus the cows!! – through fields covered with purple lupines, and white lupine bushes, big as sagebrush, all of it smelling delightfully sweet. There were still snow patches around, and it was still deliciously cool. At about 9500’, we topped a little pass above the Geiger Grade road, and there was the big ¾ moon above and between Bodie Mountain and Potato Peak. “Well, here’s our moonlight ride!” said Sue.

We joined the Geiger Grade road and wound around above beautiful deep canyons (where do they go??) Spice taking a good deal of the lead willingly. After about 7 miles we hit Four Corners – four roads that lead to Bodie, Bridgeport, Aurora, and Masonic, another group of old mining sites and ruins. Turning left to Bridgeport, we had a 7 mile slow descent down Aurora Canyon to Bridgeport – and it got hotter the lower we went. Good thing we’d started at 8 AM! Once the horses reached the outskirts of Bridgeport, the heat didn’t slow them down. They were headed home!

Back home I was kind of dreading prying my shoe off – I sure hoped the little toe wasn’t smashed and bloody. Slipped the shoe off… hooray! No blood, it was only smashed! Smashed pretty good… normally I don’t bruise that easily, but this was already a fat angry purple. “Looks broken to me!” said Gretchen’s husband. Broken, bruised, smashed, makes no difference, it’s going to be sore for a while. You know, it could have been my right toe, since that foot hurts occasionally anyway, but no, now I’ll have two suspect feet. Good thing I have no hard hikes scheduled this week (we do have a 3-day pack trip into the wilderness end of the week!), and at least I don’t have to work till Tuesday. But the main thing is, will I be able to get a shoe on tomorrow so I can ride!?

Notable sightings today: 1 antelope, 1 big fat rattlesnake, big ¾ moon, stars.

Friday, July 14, 2006


Friday July 14 2006

Visited my horse today at the Hunewill Ranch. Usually he gets tired of me smooching and scratching on him after 10 minutes, but today I was the one who pooped out. After 20 min I was about to melt – must be in the 90’s today, and with no breeze.

Stormy’s got a few dings on him this weekend (not to mention he’s a missing shoe – he loses a shoe in these wet cow pastures at least once a month) – bite mark on his butt, throat, elbow, and a bit of a swollen hind hock with a scrape (4-5 days old) where another horse’s hind hoof must have found him. He’s still sore to the touch there, though he doesn’t appear to be lame. I always tell him to be careful and stay out of trouble, but does he listen? While Stormy is about the middle man in the totem pole, he always thinks he’s tough, and will pick on the nearest horse he can find (especially when I’m around, because he gets jealous and doesn’t want any other horse getting my attention), but doesn’t learn a lesson because he’ll get too close to the wrong horse and the same thing will happen to him.

At times I worry about him breaking a leg out there, or getting into a barbed wire fence (this has happened twice before, and the second time he spent 8 days at the vet getting proud flesh carved off his leg, then another month getting doctored in Susan’s Equine Red Cross Back Yard). This is the West, and everything is fenced in barbed wire – not that a horse can’t destroy himself in a plain wire fence, wooden fence, Kentucky white fence, you name it.

That’s the chance I take, kicking Stormy, a not-so-streetwise-Thoroughbred-ex-racehorse out with a herd of 150 horses on pastures fenced with barbed wire, but, that’s how it is. I couldn’t afford to keep him in a stable (and there isn’t one anywhere near here) at a minimum of $350/month, and I prefer to see him roaming around, being a horse, instead of being stalled all day and if he’s lucky getting turned out in a pen once a day or once a week.

We also get wicked lightning storms here – a horse was killed out there in the pasture last year from a bolt. If my horse does die from lightning or a broken leg or running through a fence, well, at least I know just about anything as deadly could happen in a stable, and, I know he’s had a happy life being a real horse these last 7 years. But, hopefully, he’ll be sticking around many many more!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Wednesday July 12 2006

Today the District Ranger, the range con, and I took our resources officer and biologist out on horseback to check out a proposed road that a property owner wants to put in on Forest Service property. The biologist had taken lessons when she was little, but had only ridden once since then, two years ago, and the resources gal had taken lessons when in college, but was in a huge class in a big arena and was never secure with it, and is still not comfortable around horses. All of our FS horses are pretty much bomb-proof (though NO horse is ever completely bomb proof), and the two new gals were, if not a little nervous (and not too proud to admit it), willing. The DR brought her horse, and we brought all 4 of our boys, leaving Brenda the mule behind.

We refreshed the two gals on how to catch and halter their horses (then had them do it), how to brush a horse, how to saddle and bridle (then had them do it), how to mount, how to sit, how to hold the reins, how to ride. Normally, I’m not comfortable taking out novice riders, but, with two other teachers, and with our good horses that I had great confidence in, I had no worries.

Although I’ve only been riding – real riding, lots of horses, lots of mileage – since 1998, I couldn’t think back to the time when I was a greenhorn and first rode a horse, although I know I wasn’t scared. I’d been obsessed with them when I was little, (still am) but never got one; always wanted to ride, but don’t remember ever getting to do anything but sit on a horse’s back. My dream growing up was always to be a jockey; when I went to work on the racetrack as a groom, I wanted even more than that to be an exercise rider. Until the first horse I got on ran away with me and scared me so bad I almost jumped off at 40 mph... I certainly have never forgotten that ride, because that one ride crushed that dream. After that, I got some lessons from a good exercise rider friend, and eventually, I discovered endurance riding – my kind of riding, slower pace, in control (well – sometimes), and doing it all day!

My first few years with the FS, I got to know and to ride the FS horses, and I learned to pack, with two other horse people. When they left, it was pretty much just me who did anything with the horses the last few years. I worried about them every year – never knowing if they’d be gotten rid of – which, due to FS policy (a lousy one, IMO) meant the auction (and very likely slaughter) – especially since at the end of every season (even now, after 9 years of working here) I never know if I will have a job the next year. But now, with the new DR who likes and rides and owns horses and believes we should be using our FS horses on the district, and the new range con that rides and will be able to use the horses in her job, I don’t worry so much. If I don’t have a job next year, they will be well looked after, though I’ll still worry about them.

Today I rode Zak, the one I led in the parade, who’s blind in his left eye. He’s a great pack horse, but has rarely been ridden. I rode him once my first year here, 9 years ago, and don’t think anyone had been on him again till I got on him for ten minutes last year. This year I’ve taken him out twice now. When you put the bit in his mouth, he smacks and gags and leaves his mouth open a while, since he’s not really used to one. There’s hang time when you pull on the reins to slow him down, but, all we do is walk, and these horses are all used to following each other closely tied in a string, so when the horse in front of him slows down or stops, Zak slows down or stops. (You can use this to your advantage, getting him used to responding to the reins. The split second before he starts to stop because the horse in front of him is stopping, you give him the stop cues. Eventually, he’ll respond to your cues.) He’ll move off your leg a little, just like he’ll move off your hand pressure when you’re on the ground loading him with his pack load. You can climb on him from either side (I always choose the off-side, if the horse will allow it, just to get them used to it), and when you’re riding, you can take out a map and unfold it, you can take out a shirt or raincoat and put it on, and it doesn’t bother him.

We rode cross-country through a lot of sagebrush, over rocks, up hills, with deer springing up all around us, to a high vista that gave us a sweeping 180* view down onto the still-partially-snow-covered Sierras. The greenhorns did great, as did our faithful FS horses. We girls all had fun, and the horses seemed to enjoy getting out on a fairly easy ride. We were out a few hours, not enough to cause immediate pain to unused human muscles, but enough that will have left an impression by tomorrow morning!

Greatest wildlife sighting of the day: the first Northern Harrier of the season! These hawks are easily recognizable by the white spot on their rump, and their flying low to the ground, usually over wetlands and open fields. Greatest find of the day: a Northern Harrier tail feather!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Moonlight Ride

Wednesday July 11 2006

Oh, no! The 75-mile endurance ride we were going to do this weekend, our major prep for the Virginia City 100 in September, has been cancelled, due to lack of enough entries! Gretchen and I are disappointed and bewildered – now what are we going to do? We already missed the 2-day 50 last month, where we wimped out because of the heat, and because of this 75 we wanted to do, we missed a 75 miler July 1 (which was closer), and a nice 50 last week (one we really like). Now all we have scheduled is 2 50’s later in August. What do we do now?? We’ll have to come up with some longer, harder rides around here on our weekends – though that’s not the same as an endurance ride (the horses are much less motivated).

Anyway, tonight we went on a moonlight ride. We finished our ride at 10:15, and the moon came up over the hills at 10:20. We had plenty of light by which to unsaddle! We climbed up to Summer’s Meadows, getting near the top after the sun had set (Good luck!! - saw an owl fly out of a mountain mahogany bush!! I think it was a short-eared owl.), and led the horses down the steep trail on foot, in the advancing darkness, down to Twin Lakes. By the time we hit the bottom, it was quite dark, and we were wondering where that moon was. We joked that it would probably come up when we got back to the trailer.

The horses were a little more hesitant in the dark (Raffiq has done 2 hundreds, so has been in the dark before), so we let them walk until they were comfortable trotting. Raffiq had the lead, until a Big Scary White Rock vaporized beside the trail and he put on the brakes. I encouraged Spice into the lead (with the Extra Confidence-Giver, tapping with a whip), and she did great. The sky still gave off a surprising amount of ‘light,’ although that didn’t help when watching our path - soon we humans could see nothing of the trail unless it opened up, but the horses trotted right on along. Spice even seemed to enjoy herself out there.

When we got back to the trailer, here came the big full moon, lighting everything up, throwing enough light on the hillside behind us to grab Raffiq’s full attention – he was sure he could see a bear wandering up there somewhere.

Well, we pretended anyway that we just finished the Likely Express 75 mile ride. I guess that will have to do for this month.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Parade Frenzy

Tuesday July 4 2006

Our Forest Service horses are some pretty darn good pack and riding animals – smart, steady, strong, and fairly bomb-proof. In the woods and on mountain trails, anyway - deep streams, downed trees, booming thunderstorms, maneuvering with heavy loads, no problem. What really possessed us to think they might do well in a boisterous Fourth of July parade in downtown Bridgeport, I’m not sure, but, after at least 10 years of faithful service to the Forest Service, why not give them a chance to be seen by cheering fans and an admiring public? Besides, we just discovered Brenda the mule is really 24 years old (!) (and Red Top is 22), so, who more deserving than Brenda, in her twilight years and nearing retirement age, to be in her first parade?

This is how I saw it unfolding: Paiute, my mount, who is often spooky anyway, would be skittish and nervous, and blind-in-one-eye Zak, who I was leading, would be nervous. Cheryl’s own horse Boo would be a goofball. Ingrid’s mount Red Top would be calm. Bob’s mount Tom would be nervous, and the one he’d be leading, Brenda the mule, well, who could predict what she would do? She might tag along, she might be nervous and yank Bob right on out of the saddle, and she might plant her feet and refuse to participate in a human circus of a parade, and that would be that.

We trailered the saddled horses to the far end of town, and, with some human nerves a flutter, and a few horses’ nerves a quiver, we mounted up and started across town, on paved back roads, to the beginning of the parade route, where we joined our Forest Service float waiting in line. The horses were all a little wound up, feet clattering on the pavement, legs spinning - Paiute slipped on the slick pavement only once - but there was little traffic, and few people on the back road, and we arrived at our place in line in 20 minutes.

And there we waited. And waited. And waited… Boo was a nutcase, couldn’t stand still for more than 3 minutes. Red Top was perfectly placid; Paiute was a bit tense and wide-eyed though he was able to stand still; Zak was calm enough to close his eyes a few times; Tom was shaking underneath Bob though he stood still, and Brenda dozed off and had Bob give the insides of her big ears a good scratch.

After a good half hour we finally started to move. Uh oh, here we go! Bob took the lead with nervous high-stepping Tom while Brenda tagged along. Paiute’s wide eyes got bigger and bigger as he danced a two-step along the road, and while Zak was a little amped up, the only thing he did was pull hard on me and try to keep his head even with Paiute. I tucked Paiute in behind the calm Red Top and the goofball Boo.

As we turned the corner onto Main Street, oh boy, hang on! Paiute’s eyes were now big as flying saucers in his head, he didn’t know which way to look or which side of the road lined with crowds to be more flustered about. Oh my god, yelling kids here, waving and clapping fans there, oh my, dancing sideways this way and that, getting bouncier the more nervous he got. Zak wasn’t scared, he was still just a little excited at all the commotion (including Paiute’s), and when he put his head in front of Paiute, that really wigged Paiute out, because he got mad at Zak, then nervous at his surroundings, then mad at Zak, and back to nervous – mad, nervous, mad, nervous. People told me later I looked nervous, but I wasn’t at all, because I never felt Paiute would completely lose it. I just had to keep my attention focused on my two horses – keeping Paiute going straight, and sometimes hauling back hard on Zak.

Paiute tried to dance one way then the other, but I was able to keep him going fairly straight compared to Boo, who, to our right, was doing some mighty fine side passing one way then the other, as he were a highly trained Lippizaner at the Spanish Riding School. Cheryl was not asking him to do this, but she kept a grin on her face (or was maybe gritting her teeth?) and kept waving to the crowd, while Ingrid on plodding Red Top was able to wave gracefully like the Mayor of Bridgeport.

Up ahead of us, Bob was also concentrating on keeping nervous Tom calm, and then there was Brenda – Brenda! She was daintily walking along behind Tom, looking left and right, acknowledging her admiring fans by waving her ears, the Queen of the Parade. This parade was all about Brenda!

When the beginning of the parade turned around and doubled back on us, oh boy! Then we had the cheering fans on one side, and, coming at us on the other side, trucks! Floats! Tractors! Little kids wearing fishes around their waists! (Very scary!) A string of 8 pack mules! (Zak nickered at them). And then – oh shit oh dear, miniature horses pulling miniature carts! All of our horses went – WHOA! They all shifted and skittered sideways, bugged-eyes rolling to the tiny alien creatures that resembled horses but surely could not have been. All of our horses except for Brenda – she angled over to the left because, being the Queen of the Parade, she wanted to go greet and socialize with them.

We successfully made it to the end of Main Street – yay! Halfway finished, and no accidents! Then we turned around to parade back. We still had the cheering waving fans on our right, but now, coming at us on the left, were some kind of little pirates, chanting and throwing things and driving little cars, whacking things along the street, popping things – it was too much for Tom. He balked in panic, and Bob spun him and Brenda (who wanted to join the games) and tucked him in behind us. That left crazy Boo in front with the traipsing Red Top, and a wigged out Paiute and a pulling Zak, who I tucked in between the two again. During the whole parade I kept talking to Paiute and Zak, telling them how brave they were, reaching down to pet them both when I could ease up on the reins and lead rope. Zak believed me, but Paiute was pretty convinced he’d gone to hell for the day.

There must have been several hundred people watching this little hometown parade. I heard my name a few times but only looked up twice, because I didn’t want to take my eyes off my two horses. There were too many little kids running around – way too close to the horses – and I was concentrating on keeping Paiute just under panic mode and going in as straight a line as possible, and keeping Zak a head behind him.

Just before we got to the turn off from the main road, here came the CHP and Deputy Sheriffs, and an ambulance, with not only their lights going, but their sirens on. Oh, how convenient! When we got thrown onto the cement and trampled, they could just keep those lights and sirens on, and just throw us in the back, and drive on to the hospital in Carson City! Actually it was the pressing crowds of people at our turn that made our horses the most nervous, and it was the thought of people getting hurt by the horses that made us humans very nervous.

But we made it through, and once off Main Street, the parade over, our horses calmed down considerably. They did it – the first Parade of the Bridgeport Forest Service horses!

We crowned a new Parade Queen today – Brenda the Mule!

Monday, July 3, 2006

Parade Fever

Monday July 3 2006

Every Fourth of July, Bridgeport puts on a small-town parade and 3 or 4 days of festivities. There’s a surprisingly large out-of-town crowd that descends upon us for the holiday. The locals participate in the parade: the Forest Service and BLM have floats, the Hunewill Guest Ranch riders ride down Main Street, Leavitt Meadows Pack Station leads a string of mules, CHP and Deputy Sheriffs and other local businesses participate. Last year was the first time in the 8 years I’d been here that I’d even seen the parade.

Our new horse-friendly District Ranger Cheryl said, a while back, “Wouldn’t it be neat if we actually rode our Forest Service horses in the parade?” In all my time here, no one from this Forest Service had ever ridden our horses in it. Forest and Park Services used to rely heavily on horse power on their trails – but horse use is getting fewer and further between districts now. We’re one of the few districts in Region 5 that even have horses. We entertained the idea for a while, wondering how exactly our seasoned pack horses would take to crowds and floats and flags and screaming children and lots of people in downtown Bridgeport, and we were going to take them downtown one quieter day for a practice run, but nobody ever had time, so we blew off the idea.

So, this morning I walk into the office, and hear Cheryl and Ingrid discussing the idea. “I think we should go for it. What do you think?” Me, well, I’m thinking of spooking horses on slick pavement, which is really hard if you hit it, panicked horses getting loose… “Yea, let’s go for it!” I could care less about me being in a parade, but, the test of getting these horses through a parade, well, I am utterly intrigued with the challenge.

I’m not only going to ride the spookiest horse, my buddy Paiute, I am going to pony Zak, the blind one. Well, he’s only blind in one eye. Cheryl and Ingrid will ride; Cheryl’s husband Bob will ride and pony Brenda our mule.

We’ll ride them down the backstreets of town to get to the start of the parade – that will be our test. If they can’t pass that, we won’t start the parade down mainstreet. Of course, the back streets will be much quieter than Main Street.

Uh… there is going to be an ambulance around, right?

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Equus Ennui-us (Bored Equines)

Sunday July 2 2006

Do you ever get bored with your job? Ever feel like just not doing it? Rather just sit around the house drinking beer or sipping espressos? Ever get bored with your partner and don’t feel particularly motivated with him or her? That was Raffiq and Spice Saturday on our ride. Boring trail (though they hadn’t been on it yet this year), it was too hot, it was too uphill, it was just a good day for staying home and eating hay all day.

But no, here were their dang humans, dragging them to the trailer, saddling them up, (bribing them with grain), stuffing them in the trailer, unloading and mounting up and smooching them on up the trail. All that, and not letting them eat grass ALL THE WAY up the trail!

First one horse would stop, pretending to have to pee, then the other would stop, pretending to have to scratch their nose on their leg (while really grabbing for grass), and then subtly try to turn around and go back, in case we humans wouldn’t notice. One time we were trotting along so slowly, a butterfly outran us, and he wasn’t even fluttering in a straight line.

Things briefly got a little exciting for Raffiq once we hit the top of Big Eagle and started heading down – the scrub aspens can grow quite thick in there anyway, but now there were numerous places we had to pick our way carefully around off the logging road, and one place I had to actually pull the downed trees off the road. I made a quite scary commotion down in the trees, pulling scary trees off the scary overgrown road. Aspens aren’t my favorite trees (I’ve had to crawl and stagger my way through some gnarly aspen thickets on hikes), and Raffiq sure didn’t like them, as they grabbed and clawed and poked him as he ducked blindly through some of the overgrown paths. I led him on foot through several tunnels, and he ducked behind me as closely as he could. Once we heard something (small) rustle off the trail and Raffiq tried to bolt – he was convinced there was a bear hiding somewhere in the aspens.

Even heading home the last mile, both horses just putzed along – until we came to their usual grazing treat spot, then they hit warp trot speed for 20 yards, and then put on the skids that would make a reiner jealous.

Friday’s ride with Raffiq and Buddy was a bit livelier – we think Raffiq and Spice just get way bored with each other, and the slower one goes, the even slower the other goes, till it becomes a contest as to who can move forward in the most drag-ass motion possible.

But it was still a gorgeous ride, high up into the aspens and Jeffreys, across a couple of raging creeks, a nice sunny but not too hot day in the Sierras. And even on this busy weekend, we avoided all human beings!

Today’s ride was a flat easy fun 7 mile ride to Twin Lakes and back. It was Spice and Buddy, who motor right along and don’t get bored together. It’s best to take a crop along when riding Spice – she doesn’t want to go in the lead unless it’s HER idea, but the crop convinces her that it IS her idea. Bitchy Spice we often call her. When she doesn’t want to do something, she’ll back up – not a good thing, as a horse doesn’t pay attention to what he’s backing over when he’s backing away from something – and the crop will stop the reverse immediately. She is a bit spookier in front (as are many horses), so you really concentrate harder and use your legs more to stay in the saddle and keep her steady. Buddy isn’t a spooky horse out front. In fact nothing much bothers him – except water. Dreaded water crossings! Some he will go across; some he will NOT stick his feet in the water. Today, for the second time at the same creek crossing, we could not get him across this one. It’s best not to give up and let a horse win, but if you’re risking getting hurt proving your point, it’s not worth it. Last time that happened, we turned around and took him on the Water Ride – where he had to cross numerous streams. (It seems to be certain rushing, noisy creeks that he’s afraid of). This time, we just backtracked a ways and continued on our fun ride, just avoiding that creek crossing.

Another fun, successful weekend of riding!