NOTE: This is one of a series of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the Ranch, not in any particular order. So far they include “Shooting Emma“, “High, wide and handsome“, “A family I knew“, and “Old as cut nails (the education of a wrangler)“.
There was a white horse, and there was a man who loved the white horse with a quiet, durable love that felt a lot like trust. No one was sure how old the horse was, though he was strong enough to walk the trails all through the long hot summer days and through the deeply penetrating cold of winter days, and so seemed to be neither very old nor very young. The man was both old and young. He had missed or wasted a lot of opportunities and had had enough time on the planet that he should have been wiser and certainly more prosperous than he was, but he also had never really grown up, had never faced his anger or his fear, and these were to master him for a good many years yet.
The man came to the Ranch to escape the city and its demands, to escape the circular and clanging responsibilities of modern urban life, and to learn how to ride horses. At first he rode many different horses as they were assigned to him, and learned how each one behaved under him, whether they were spooky and likely to balk or rear or jump sideways, or whether they were lazy and slow and barn sour, or whether they were “goey”, which last was rare, since most of them had been bought cheap from other horse camps, where for years they had had their heads pulled around and their sides kicked by the public until they were numb. Most of them knew that if they simply followed the horse in front of them, they’d end up back at the stable and could rest for a few minutes. If they got a chance to nip at some tall grass or if their rider was not alert and they could bend to some low green grass, they would always attempt it.
Montana — for that was the horse’s name — was such a horse. He had been bought as part of a group of half a dozen or so horses being sold by another outfit and was unflappable, a little lazy, and had sides of iron. Montana loved Gypsy, an Appaloosa whom he stood next to at the rail. His nose was always as close to Gypsy’s nose as he could get it. They stood like that for hours, breathing each other’s breath.
One day the man was assigned to this white horse named Montana. “Matthew,” said Arden quietly, after having assigned horses to all the assembled riders. “You’ll lead this trail. Take Montana.”
Matthew — for you know it was I — looked where Arden pointed. I hadn’t even noticed Montana much before then, a not-tall white horse with a mane and tail the color of New England clam chowder. I ran a comb over him, threw a blanket and saddle over him, cinched it up, mounted and led the trail out.
I found immediately that Montana had a good rhythm for leading trails, at least the way I led them. He just went. I requested him the next time Arden sent me out.
“I like him.”
“Alright. I’m not gonna argue with you. He’s yours.”
Montana became my go-to mount. He tried to sneak some grass early on but I kept him out of it most times, and he learned that if he stayed on the job then I’d let him have a nibble now and again when we had to wait for stragglers. It was an unspoken bargain. We had to wait a lot because he had a fast walk and would get too far ahead of the second horse in the trail. After we got to know each other I would stop him with a little gentle drawing in of the reins and he’d just stand still looking forward, his ears flipping back and forth waiting for me to relax my grip and give the word. Then he would move again, for all I know never wondering or caring why we’d stopped. Sometimes it was just because the light came through the locust and cherry trees in just a certain way, and I had to fill up my soul with the look of it.
* * * *
I started keeping Montana in the paddock overnight for morning round-up and found that while he was neither fast nor particularly agile, he was willing. He would go anywhere I asked him to without complaining or balking. Often on Saturday cattle roundup several momma cows would break off with their calves and sklathe into a thicket guarded by inch-long thorns or “jaggers”. You couldn’t flush them out by wishing or threatening. I had a red cotton twill shirt whose weave was particularly resistent to puncture, and I wore it on all cattle round-ups. Wearing that shirt and riding that horse, I simply closed my eyes, lowered my head and plowed into ten-foot-high thickets, the jaggers instantly zorro-ing across my wrists and neck and drawing blood. Montana wouldn’t hesistate, and more than once I picked thorns out of his hide when we got back to the stables and he had put his nose up to Gypsy’s nose again.
Those campers who attended the Ranch frequently came to know that Montana was my horse, which I think they found charming, because other than the sponsorship of the stablemaster he had nothing going for him. But my widely-known (and perhaps oft-ridiculed) love for that mutt changed the way some campers regarded him. During lessons in the ring, campers who knew me felt lucky if they got to ride Montana.
One day Uncle Bill arranged for several of our horses to be loaded into a trailer and taken to a church somewhere among the nearby towns, where children would be given rides. I was in the stable and Arden was up at the driveway putting the horses in the trailer.
“Matthew!” I heard Arden calling. When I walked up I saw him standing at the foot of the long ramp into the trailer, holding Montana by his lead rope. Horses often balk at bridges or at barn doors, or other places where they are unsure of what they are walking on. Montana wasn’t having any of it and had planted his feet. Arden was in a hurry to get the horses loaded. “You wanna come here and talk to your boy?”
I took the lead rope, patted Montana’s muscular neck up under his stained-ivory mane, and put my mouth up to his ear and muttered a phrase in Spanish that I said often to him as an expression of my affection for him. Then I clucked once and turned away and walked up the ramp without looking back at him. He immediately followed, his hooves sounding on metal ramp and the trailer floor. I knew that Arden could have prevailed, but my heart filled up and brimmed over at the fact that Montana had instantly crossed his picket line and clocked in for me, just because I asked.
* * * *
My most thrilling moments were not on Montana. I think I was riding Ice, another white horse — one who had no tail for the entire year I was at the Ranch because he had stood with his butt to the fence where a goat ate it clean up to the dock — when I first experienced a canter. It was my first week and we were rounding up the horses out of Lake and bringing them to the gate at Ring on a cool sunny March morning, when Ice broke the fast trot that I had become comfortable with (bouncy, but safe) and broke into a half-hearted run. I managed to hold on, even though my heels came up and I nearly went over the hood when he stopped.
There was a horse named Champ who was something of a superhorse. I hadn’t ridden him but once or twice, if at all, but one morning after bringing in the horses for the campers Arden pointed out that Josh and Velvet — the little skivers — had pulled their frequent trick of sheering off into the ravine at the last minute and were not in the stable. “Take Champ,” said Arden. “They’ll be hiding out at the bottom of the ravine.”
Champ was Arden’s secret weapon. I can’t remember if I learned this before that morning or after, but I learned it one morning when Arden, fed up with Josh and Velvet’s constant shenanigans, headed out on Champ muttering how he was going to “lay those two among the roses.” In the stable we continued putting kids on ponies, and I assigned riders to Josh and Velvet even though they were not yet present and their riders stood unhappily next to their places at the rail. There was a commotion of hooves off east, and when we all looked we saw Arden, this very little old man, riding this dark and mighty steed hard toward us across the meadow in Upper Barn, cracking a long round-up whip, with Joshua and Velvet running in terror before them. Champ was big, fast and relentless. I saw Arden for the first time as a rider I would not want on a posse chasing me across the badlands. Especially on Champ.
That morning one of the staff unhitched Champ and walked him over to me and I mounted up and lit out for the ravine. I found Joshua and Velvet there grazing by the creek at the bottom, sure enough, and circled around behind them, then spurred Champ forward to crash their reverie. They bolted for the stable and as we pursued them and came up out of the woods Champ became like an animal possessed of some ancient steedly fury. I could barely hold him, but just crouched low as he thundered after the truants across the green green grass in a full gallop.
That was a heady moment. The only one more potent in my memory was when we moved the majority of the herd to Winter pasture. This was an annual drive, only a few minutes in length, in which we loosed all the horses from the rail, then opened the south east gate of the stable and let them surge out across Upper Barn pasture. It required a little skill, and Arden organized it. Younger campers lined the fence by the driveway to watch. We wanted Pippy, the herd’s leader, to run ahead. If she did, the rest would follow. The trick was to get her running over the hill and down to the bottom of Upper Barn, then across the highway and into Winter. Volunteers would be waiting to open the gates at the bottom and stop traffic on the highway. George and several others were in the saddle waiting like sentries at strategic points along the way, where Pippy might get a wild hair and break off in other directions. These outriders would also keep the herd together. I was instructed to ride at the front, driving Pippy but staying behind her. I was on Penny for this job.
A dark and beautiful bay horse, Penny was beloved of many campers and staff because she had absolutely the most silky gaits. Trotting on most horses wears your butt-bones out fast, but Penny was creamy even at a trot. At a gallop she was dream-smooth like a carousel horse.
When the gate opened and the horses began moving I was completely taken by surprise at the feeling of it. I had until then experienced nothing like the united motion of a herd of horses in a free run. Round-up was a little different: you felt the flow, but you were directing it, too. This day I was like a man on an innertube at the top of the sluices of a huge dam being opened. Very quickly any control I had over Penny vanished. She ran right behind Pippy and the rest of the herd thundered around on all sides and behind us. We shot over the hill and when we got to the corner of the ridge all the horses had to channel into a narrow place where the trail plummeted steeply downward toward the creek. I will never forget that moment because I was genuinely afraid for my life. Penny was behind Pippy near the point of the wedge as we plunged over the edge. If I came off now there would be little chance of my escaping untrampled. The ground was a holocaust of hooves. Small rocks and big clods of soil rose up around us into the late afternoon sun. I leaned back as far as I could on Penny as she rocketed down the steep hill. Then we were suddenly through the pinch and racing across the flat meadow toward the road. We slowed only when we came clopping out across the pavement of the highway.
* * * *
There were other exhilarating moments, but most of my memories are of the slow and rhythmic plodding of Montana, his sure gait. The way waves of crickets would lift into the air as his strong legs brushed forward in tall grass. His white rump, which I saw a lot of while turning backward in the saddle to chat with visiting riders behind me or bark at campers to keep their horses’ noses out of the grass. His sweet breath, the warmth of his triangular neck against my hand on cold mornings. The way dust would come off his neck when I patted him after a long day.
I was glad I was on Montana the day George and I were leading a trail of campers out for an overnight pack trip. The whole idea of such an adventure made me nervous, and to make matters worse we had the teenage boys on this outing. One of them, Ryan, was an inveterate trouble-maker. I was extremely grateful that George was dragging the trail. We put Ryan at the back of the line where George could keep an eye on him. I rode Montana at the lead and led our pack horse, probably Judson or Skippy, holding Montana’s reins in my right hand and the pack horse’s extra long lead rope in my left, looped around the pommel. The campers all had their sleeping bags and other gear tied on behind their saddles.
Unbeknownst to us, and to all of the horses, Ryan had stashed some contraband in one of his pillowcases. As we journeyed far out beyond the regular trails toward our campsite, Ryan started lipping off to George and pulling little stunts to disrupt the nice tidy progress we were making, and George started getting fed up with trying to keep him in line. Eventually Ryan’s pillow started slipping to one side, and at a moment when our trail was descending a steep hill which met the highway at the bottom, Ryan reached back and roughly (because he was feeling surly) yanked on his pillow to straighten it. The open bag of M&Ms hidden inside loosed a sudden, clackety shower of the delightfully bright colored candies onto the unsuspecting nose of George’s horse, just as I, down below at the front, had pulled us up to stop so we could all cross the highway in safety.
This part of the highway was on a curve and a hill, and coal trucks frequently whooshed along it at frightening speeds. It crossed my mind that we had no business leading trails of children on horseback across the highway at this particular spot. George would have to float up from the back and ride out into the road and stop any traffic for us. I turned to look up the hill for George and what I saw will give me chills until my dying day when I think of it. George was at that instant popping off his bucking horse like a lanky rag doll, disappearing into the brush, Ryan’s horse had charged ahead into the horse in front of it, and that horse had likewise spooked and bolted, and so on in an avalanche of horror, a chaotic wave that surged under the boys behind me as their horses all ran forward toward me and they tried to hold on.
The pack horse finally jumped forward, and I could feel Montana’s muscles tensing under me — he was frightened, didn’t know what was happening behind him. I tried to hold him but was being pulled by the pack horse, which in the moment I didn’t have a clear enough head to let go of. We all surged out into the highway like the splash of a tidal wave, and there it all ended. Only George was off, but that was okay. George was always coming off. Many was the time I’d seen a horse that George had ridden out on trot back into the stable with its saddle hanging off to one side. It was George’s style. He’d be okay. But I immediately starting yelling at the boys to move across and get those ponies out of the road. If a coal truck came around the bend right now we’d all be roadkill. Montana behaved pretty admirably in that moment, I thought.
* * * *
One cold evening in Winter when snow lay on the land. I asked Uncle Bill if I could ride Montana home. I lived with George and Geo in an old brick house several valleys away up a long gravel road from the Ranch house. It would be inefficient, since it would take me longer to get in to work the next morning, but Bill said okay. At day’s end I mounted up in the dark and we headed north in the blue stillness, Montana and I. The stars were bright. It was pitch dark out in rural Appalachian Ohio, but Montana was a white horse and he reflected starlight. We went at an easy walk, and I soon became terribly cold. I was glad for the contact of his body from my ankles up the inside of my legs to my groin. Still, my toes were nearly numb in my boots and my hands ached in the yellow fuzzy work gloves I always wore. Glad too for the silly F– Ranch neckerchief I’d been wearing all day. I pulled it up over my nose, my nostrils stung so badly from the cold.
We passed a large, littered paper bag and Montana startled a little, jerked sideways, then stared at it. I nudged him over to the other side of the road where it lay, and he stuck his nose in it, then moved on, satisfied that there were only some empty Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans inside. After an hour and a half we came over the ridge into the starlit valley where the brick house was the only sign of life. The boys were home and warm yellow squares of light pushed from the windows into the cold blue night and yellowed the snow. I remember the feeling, that sweet unhurried feeling of peace, a man cresting the hill on his best horse after an honest day’s work, coming home to his house in the valley.
I heard Montana nickering in the barn that night, confused about what he was doing there, but happy for the good alfalfa hay I had thrown him before turning in.
I loved that horse. I like to remember him the way I see him in a photo George sent me, taken after I had left the Ranch. It feels like a sad-happy goodbye. Camper Rachel, whom we called Roach, is riding away on him, away from me, and looking happily over her shoulder at us. Montana is of course looking where he’s going, happy to be on the move, and his flanks and mane absolutely gleam in the crisp sun, as though he has been somehow transfigured into something magnificent, something he can’t even dream of. Something he always was to me.