The human-equine bond is a powerful thing, especially when it comes to trust. It’s almost indescribable, this bond. It’s a mutual and unspoken promise that I will keep you safe no matter the circumstances. It’s beautiful and comforting and I have been so lucky to have had that for sixteen years with my equine soul mate. But this isn’t about Scout. Not yet. I can’t yet. When I do, it will encompass more than just trust and it will be a beautifully written tribute to him and our years together. I could write about my Country Bumpkin, but he and I have such an odd relationship that this post would be pages and pages long. I know him pretty much as well as I know Scout, but ours is a quirky pairing. He’ll get a post sometime as well. He’s earned it.
Instead, I’m going to focus on when I was working at the Bar W Guest Ranch in Whitefish, Montana. Even though I was only at the Bar W for two months, I can think of several times where a foundation of trust was laid and built upon. I’ll go horse by horse to keep it simple.
Walter. My darling little Walter is a chestnut gelding with a wide blaze and two socks splashed on his lower legs. He’s not the biggest horse at the ranch, but he is solid muscle, and he was the first horse I rode on a trail ride in Montana. It was a loping trail ride which meant that we were galloping up old, rocky fire roads in a group of around ten or so people. Having had a horse trip and fall on me while cantering once, I’m uneasy when it comes to galloping over unfamiliar ground, so I was a little wary when the ride started. But Walter kept me safe-he listened and responded to every command and by the end of the ride, my nerves were gone. Walter was who I wanted when I had to take my first trail ride out by myself. He’ll do anything you ask him to, and that unwavering dependability makes him a treasure. Having ridden him frequently, I was extremely happy when my barn manager, Lindsay, suggested I ride him for the photography week photo shoot. Part of the shoot required that we gallop the horses as fast as we could across the pasture. No problem, except that the pasture is littered with gopher holes (see previous uneasiness due to riding accident). Walter and I were slated to go first, and I made a joke about being nervous and then explained why. Which got an, “Oh. Well that makes sense,” form Lindsay. Then she looked at me and said, “Just trust Walter. He’s a good horse and he knows where to put his feet.” And there it was. As soon as she said it, it was so easy. The fear was gone and we shot across that pasture faster than I’ve ridden in a long while. And Walter didn’t so much as stumble. It was exhilarating and solidified Walter as my go to horse for any situation I was unsure about.
For example, I had to take a trail ride out as storm was rolling in, and Walter was my guy. As a rule, the ranch rides in all weather except lighting, and after watching the radar, we figured we would be fine. I had two women from LA with me, and one had never ridden before, so I was hoping the dark cloud would veer away. As we set out, a chilly breeze picked up and light rain pelted our faces. We got almost halfway through the ride without getting terribly wet, and then the skies opened and we didn’t stand a chance. Luckily we were already in the woods, but even so, we were soaked to the bone within minutes. Thank goodness the girls took it all in stride. Yes they were cold, but they “felt like legit cowgirls” and laughed about it while trying to take pictures without ruining their phones. That was a relief for me, because while they were enjoying themselves, I had an eye to the sky and an eye to the trees. The wind was blowing hard; the Tamarack trees groaned and snapped as they were pummeled by the breeze, and I needed to be ready to act in case a tree fell. In the midst of unpredictable weather, it was such a blessing to know that Walter was solidly beneath me while my attention was elsewhere. He plodded along, completely unfazed by the driving rain and hail, and we ended up having a fun time, despite nearly freezing to death. It was also cool to see that, while I trusted Walter to be awesome, he trusted me enough to go where I asked him, despite the rain, wind, and hail.
Pilgrim. My sweet Pilgrim became my favorite and I don’t know how it happened. He is a big, mahogany bay with three socks, a stripe smeared down from his forehead to his nose, and he is scared of everything. Our first interaction involved me accidentally scaring him with a rake and him pulling back against the hitching post so hard I thought he was going to rip it from the ground. Then the first time I rode him on a trail ride, a mountain biker came screaming down a hill behind us and he spooked badly. But there was something endearing about him when he was scared. He responded to me, to my voice and my legs, and I developed a fierce protectiveness over him. I didn’t want anyone else to ride him because they might not understand his quirks, they wouldn’t know how to reassure him. He was a horse I had to be confident for, and we worked well together. There were also times, like with Walter, where I had to just blindly trust that he would get me up or down a mountain and, like Walter, he never let me down. He was a blast to ride on the steep hills-cantering up them and jumping over fallen logs, and his excitement and energy were contagious.
I took him into several situations where he was nervous, but because I exuded confidence to him, and he trusted me, we made it through the scary stuff flawlessly. One time Monica and I were given permission to explore a new trail, so we set off, curious as to what we would find. One of the first things we came across was a collection of giant, yellow earth movers. Monica’s horse, Jose, is also afraid of everything, and when we saw the terrifying machines we exchanged grim smiles and a, “well, this will be fun.” As we rode near the yellow beasts, I pressed my legs against Pilgrim’s sides, and murmured encouraging words to him. Much to my surprise and delight, neither horse so much as snorted at the machines. It was a wonderful feeling, and we had such a blast exploring the new trail with our favorite horses.
On one of the last days at the ranch, Eli and I were asked to bring the draft horses from the front pasture to the barn. We decided to pony the horses (lead them back while we’re on horseback) and I picked Pilgrim as my mount, knowing this would be a test. Both Pilgrim and Eli’s horse, Jill, were nervous when we got to the front, and when we led the draft horses over to them, they stiffened, eyes growing wide. Eli and Jill were leading the two Percheron geldings, Duke and Dutch. They are monstrously huge horses, but they couldn’t be sweeter. Pilgrim and I got the Clydesdale mares, Missy and Bee. Also huge, but sassy over sweet. So, after saying a quick prayer, I tied Missy and Bee together, mounted Pilgrim, and we set off down the road. We started off badly; Bee kept trying to crowd my sweet Pilgrim, edging close to him and trying to bite him. I could hear Eli laughing as I kept up a steady stream of “Back off, Bee, I like Pilgrim better than you. If you bite him I’ll hurt you. It’s okay Pilgrim, you’re doing wonderfully, and I’ll give you grain when we get back.” We kept this up until Bee snaked her head out and tried to bite Pilgrim on the neck. Supremely annoyed, I flicked her on the nose which was a mistake because she pulled back and I lost my hold on the lead rope. So, I had to get off Pilgrim and catch the girls again which was a process because Pilgrim did not want to get close to them. He followed me like I asked, but very stiffly and I was just so proud of him for that. Eventually I got the girls and we continued to the barn, encountering a trail ride and a vehicle along the way. After being bopped on the nose, Bee behaved herself, and while Pilgrim pranced the whole way back, he did everything I asked him to. He trusted me enough to let me take him on this scary adventure and he’s big enough and strong enough he could have easily bucked me off and sought the safety of the barn. It’s incredible that he trusted me so much, and it made all the work I did with him prior to that extremely validating.
If I could, I would buy both of these horses in a heartbeat. Pilgrim has the potential to be an amazing horse, and while he is skittish, he doesn’t scare me. I want to put the work into making him awesome because he proved he has a beautiful ability to trust and learn. Walter would be the horse I would never have to worry about. I logged so many miles on him- rode him to Canada even, and I could ride him without thinking about what I was doing. In the midst of working through insurmountable grief after losing Scout, there was something comforting in being able to find a couple horses that I could bond with. No horse will ever be able to replace Scout, but these two helped me to work through the pain, reaffirming my belief that horses are magic and that equine therapy is the best therapy.