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!