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A Day in the Mountains

I was one of those girls, like so many others, that grew up in the suburbs,
had a fairly middle class upbringing, and loved to ride horses. We didn’t
believe we would REALLY get a pony for Xmas – where would we put it, in
the backyard near the swimming pool beside the orange trees? The San
Fernando Valley, part of the greater Los Angeles area, was expanding fast
as I grew up there. Houses and malls were replacing orange, walnut and
lemon orchards. Our home had a wonderful backyard with orange, lemon,
grapefruit and apricot trees that stood surrounded by a manicured green
lawn and big swimming pool with slide and diving board on the other side of
the chain-linked fence. We kept every sort of critter as pets including rats,
squirrels, dogs, cats, parrots and pigeons, but no ponies. I learned to ride at
Pickwick Riding Stables, located near the outskirts of Griffith Park, on well-
seasoned horses that worked very hard for their daily hay. My favorite was
a slump-backed ‘white” horse named Snowball. I always asked for him on
our bimonthly rides with my brother and sisters. He wasn’t real handsome,
but he loved to gallop down the wide dirt trails that meandered through the
park. I was always the winner of our short races, and sometimes got in
trouble for bringing the poor horse back sweaty and wet. I didn’t know
much about proper riding etiquette, just that I loved to be on top of ol’
Snowball and ride as long and as fast as possible.

I was 13 years old when our family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Our brother
surprised us one Christmas and actually bought us girls a big
appaloosa/quarter horse/thoroughbred-mix mare we named Lady Jane. She
was just two years old, saddle-broke but not trained, and very tall, about 16
hands. Horses are measured in hands (each hand is 4 inches), which is the
height at their withers because that is a fixed location. Their heads are
always moving so it’s best to describe their height based on the withers
(where the neck meets the back). So Lady was about 5’ 4’’ tall at the
withers. I am 5’ 6 1/2” tall, and I could barely look over her back when
standing next to her. I loved to ride bareback, she was very comfortable,
and we spent lots of time roaming the 30-acre ranch where she was
stabled. She spoiled me for the rest of my life, as she was the most gifted,
naturally gaited horse I’ve ever ridden. To this day, after countless mounts
through the decades since we owned her, I have not experienced a more
trusting relationship with another huge, powerful mammal we call Horse.

I’m close to 60 years young now, and have recently found another riding
companion. Her name is Caroline, from England originally, and she owns
one beautiful sorrel mare and stables another for a friend nearby, a 12-
year-old buckskin gelding named MoJo. It had been three years since I last
rode with another friend with horses in the Tularosa Basin, NM. She and her
husband are archaeologists and had access to some 50 acres of land where
we could ride and explore. They sold their horses and my riding stopped.
The woman with whom I ride now lives close to me in the mountains of
Southeast NM. The terrain is different, and at a fairly high altitude. I’d
ridden this buckskin gelding five times before we began our most recent
ride yesterday – one that is etched forever in my horseback riding memory.

My friend Caroline told me we would meet her friend Nora at the trailhead.
We drove in her truck with the 3-horse trailer behind us to the destination
after saddling up at the ranch. Nora was there waiting atop her huge
dappled gray gelding named “DoubleU.” We were about to embark upon
the Argentine Trail, one that takes riders from 7000 feet to 9000 feet in the
course of about an hour through mountain paths with treacherous drops on
one side and slick granite rock formations encountered throughout the ride.

At first we rode on wide paths that led into the mountain trails. Once we
crossed a rocky rivulet we were on the three-foot-wide trail that took us to
the top of the Argentine. I was the middle horse, between my two new
friends and their larger, stronger and trusted horses. We walked along the
narrow path winding along the edge of the mountain. Soon I realized we
were walking within edges of the precipice that looked down some 100 feet
below, probably more. The big grey gelding was in front of me, walking
surely and calmly along the dirt path. Malarkey and Caroline followed me.
At this point there is no turning back or being scared. You are in it, like a
skydiver after he jumps. I had to give my trust to MoJo, let him find his pace
and step after safe step on that unthinkably slender trail. We didn’t talk
much at that point. There was some light banter going on between us up
until then. It got pretty quiet as we walked that line.

They seemed perfectly calm, but when we reached the top and could talk
again, my friend admitted she was a bit shaken the first time she rode the
trail, too. The view from the summit was as good as it gets, anywhere. We
had a 360° look at the Sacramento and Capitan Mountains, the volcanic
rocks of Carrizozo, the majestic formation called Nogal Peak, and rolling
hills of wild grasses and flowers. We took a break to eat a snack and let the
horses relax and graze, then continued our ride through tall shrubs that
obscured the trail and tickled our knees. We walked on through scrub oaks,
tall pine and a variety of mountain flora. Ravens cawed overhead while the
four dogs running with us found abandoned remnants of elk legs to carry
and chew as we proceeded down the trail. Many times we encountered slick
rock patches that the horses hooves could very easily have slipped on and
fallen. One such precarious stretch was a big challenge for my small horse.
He was tired and there were a few larger rocks to climb up. He hesitated,
and I hesitated, then he began to back up close to the rocky edge leading
to another 100-foot drop. My friends said “kick him,” so I did, and he
jumped ahead and scrambled across that slippery grouping of granite.

After that, the trail became less demanding and we could relax and follow
each other with a lighter mood. The yellows and reds of the aspens in the
distance were a beautiful sight to behold. That time of day allowed the
radiant light to dance off the tops of the peaks and enter the shadows to
form richly colored vistas. I was glad to be able to look around again instead
of admonishing my horse to “watch his step” as we traversed all those
precarious places in the trail. I was thrilled to reach the bottom and be in
safe terrain again. The crisp cool air sparkled light blue light from the clear
sky above. I so admired my two older friends and their courageous spirits
for making such a difficult ride seem like child’s play. They trusted their
horses, I trusted their opinion of their horses, and we all live on to tell our
tale. Moment by moment life unfolds in tantalizing layers of unforeseen