My early years were spent in a small town of 200 people in central Minnesota, close to aunts, uncles and grandparents. With three streets, we knew everyone. One of the bonuses of living in a rural setting was the chance to be near large animals, among them, horses. But as fate would have it, I couldn’t get within 100 yards of one.
I had cousins who lived on a dairy farm, and the times we went there, I had to go right in the house, bypassing all the fun stuff a kid could do outside. That retreat was required, especially when I was downwind from the ponies. I’d get an asthma-like attack without the benefit of having an inhaler to calm it down. Apparently, 5% of the population has allergies to horses, which comes from their dander, dust from small flakes of skin.
I was fascinated by these elegant creatures They appear in stories in many cultures, sometimes taking on religious significance. To compensate for not being able to ride or even be near them, I read horse-themed books. There was "Misty of Chincoteague," "Black Beauty," "Smoky the Cow Horse" and of course, "King of the Wind." In this day and age, "Spirit Riding Free" seems to be popular with the younger set.
It took a long time before I thought about challenging my immune system by getting near a horse. I finally took a chance when I was planning to visit a friend in Montana. Before I started the trip to Red Lodge, I went to a large horse barn south of where we lived and deliberately stood on the windward side of the arena. At the tender age of 45, I appeared to have no asthmatic symptoms. I was good to go.
I happened to arrive at the ranch the day a herd of horses needed to be moved from one pasture to another, three miles away. After being introduced around to the neighbors, I was assigned a palomino gelding to ride. There was no in-service.
The horse knew what to do, but it was obvious the rider had no clue. Going in circles to the left, then going to the right, was followed by repeated movement backwards and forward. Since it was clear I needed a little more time in the saddle, I figured the horse knew what the plan was, so I let him have his way. We followed the herd.
After a couple days of learning by experience, my friend and I decided to ride up pasture to the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains. It was a moderately long trip interspersed with a lunch by a mountain stream that gave us all a break. Pat and I had salami sandwiches; our mounts wheatgrass and brome. I was able to ride the horse I met the first day. He had been a Forest Service ride and was used to long days in the wilderness. He was extremely tolerant of a greenhorn, but he did like to trot. I never got used to that. There was a lot of up and down in the saddle. The hot tub back at the house at the end of the day was a lifesaver.
Horses are smart. They cooperate with one another and frequently conspire to get near the best grasses. I have seen three or four of them back up to a steel gate and push with their rear ends in an attempt to force the gate open. Sometimes, it worked. If one of them was in a sour mood and disinclined to be saddled, it would deliberately inhale and swell its belly, making it harder to cinch the saddle tight. There is nothing more unsettling than sliding sideways slowly off the back of your mount.
It has been awhile since I’ve been back at the ranch out West. I am still enamored of these magnificent creatures. Several years ago, I was out for a morning run and came by a pasture with four white horses grazing in the early morning light. They joined me in the run, cantering along the fence line till the end of the meadow. It sticks in my mind as a mystical moment, and I am grateful for that image of power and grace they expressed. I might have to read "King of the Wind" again.
Doug Lewandowski is a retired counselor, educator and licensed psychologist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.