I Know Cold…And this Might Actually be It!

These next few posts are going to be a bit out of chronological order, but I went for a glorious ride in the snow today and it brought a couple of stories to the forefront of my mind. So, here’s the first one.

My first winter working at the dude stable was also my first winter working outside in the snow. People tend to think that Arizona doesn’t have harsh winters. And in a lot of Arizona, that’s true. It’s also true that we don’t have anything to compare to the winter in New England or some of the northern states. But parts of Arizona do get snow and in some of those places it can get pipe busting, snot freezing, black ice making cold. I don’t even know the number of times I’ve been hurrying to saddle a horse, stepped on a patch of packed, snowy ice, and ended up on my butt with the saddle on top of me.

There was a pure, quiet beauty to my first winter in the pines. It spoke to the very core of my being. Riding was trickier in the winter, true, but it was so much fun! To watch the steam rise off of the horses and see their breath melt the icicles that formed on their whiskers was awe inspiring.

I feel like if I had to name the most “magical” experience of my horse life, it’s loping across clean, untouched snow. Of course, if you’re loping along with someone else, spacing is of the utmost importance. If heed is not taken, there is a good chance that someone is going to get hit in the face with a hard packed snowball flying loose from the front horse’s hoof. Still, other than that, riding in the snowy woods has always made me feel just a little higher level of “unity” with my horse. In short, I love it!

Having said that, even I know when to say enough’s enough, and to call off a ride when there is physical danger. Dollar signs, however, have proven time and time again that they don’t know the first thing about common sense.

It was lack of both dollar signs and common sense that prompted me to take out a half day ride in January of that first year. Things had slowed to a trickle at the stable. Most of my time was spent breaking ice in water troughs, draining hoses, and doling out warm bran mash to the herd. We were down to taking one or two rides a day, and usually only at an hour’s length. There were a couple of our trails that were just too treacherous during the winter so our available options were limited.

The surprise on my face had to be pretty evident when I saw my schedule that morning. I was down to take a half day ride for one rider at 10am?!

Our half day ride left from the stable and meandered up into the piney mountains until we stopped for lunch at the very head of Horton Spring. There, people would relax, and stretch their sore muscles, and enjoy the cool water on their bare feet, before we headed back down. It was a wonderful ride, IN THE SUMMER! Or, even the spring or fall, but not in the dead of winter! With two feet of snow at the stable, even oblivious, naive, I knew it was a bad idea to head up that trail.

Still, I hadn’t yet learned to put my foot down so after a weak attempt at protesting, I just accepted it as one of those things that would eventually make a good story.

I picked out my horses and had a serious conversation with them as I got them ready for their day.

At 9:45 my lone rider showed up. A smallish gal in her 50’s, she was wearing leggings, boots, a thin jacket and thinner gloves.

I introduced myself and chatted with her as she filled out the required paperwork. She was from New Hampshire and had ridden quite a bit when she was younger. My boss wasn’t around so I tried the honest approach with her.

“You know, the snow’s going to be really deep up there. There is no way we are going to make it all the way to the spring. If you’d like I can take out out on other trails for as long as you want but they are closer to the barn so we can come back if you decide you’re uncomfortable.”

“This isn’t cold! I know what cold is. This is SPRINGTIME weather!” She chirped.

“Well, at least she’s enthusiastic.” I thought as I got her mounted and we headed out.

For the first hour of the ride, the part before we started our climb, we had a great conversation. The snow wasn’t too bad and the horses’ movements helped keep us warm. Shortly after we reached the main trail head the climb in elevation became evident. No one else had passed through the trail since the last storm which meant the horses had to work extra hard to break the trail. When the snow reached the horses’ knees I looked back and asked my fellow rider how she was holding up.

Her cheeks and nose were bright red. “Just fine. This is BEAUTIFUL. I can’t wait to see the spring!”

I admired her strong will and didn’t have the heart to tell her that there was no way we were going to make it another two miles let alone the four we would need to cover to make it two the spring. I gave her a thumbs up and pushed my horse on. He grumbled at me but moved out. He was a stout little Navajo mustang who I promise you will read much, much more about. The most important thing you need to know about him now though, is that in those early years, he was absolutely the brains of the operation.

It seemed that the snow got deeper and deeper each step. My horse was in front, so he was doing most of the work breaking the trail. I could feel him starting to resent it. He was huffing, puffing and sweating with exertion. He started moving slower and slower despite my urging.

Finally I turned and suggested her horse lead for a while to give my horse a breather. Even under the deep snow the trail was easy to spot as it was lined with tall trees on each side. She pushed her mare, a red and white paint named Gypsy, past me. Gypsy was a few inches taller than my horse so the going was easier for her for a bit.

The gal’s chatter had begun to taper off. If I asked her a question she would quickly smile and answer. Otherwise, she had her jaw set with determination. So, we pushed on, the snow getting deeper by the stride. As we gained in elevation not only did the snow get deeper but the temperature dropped. Down low the snow had been a watery slush, easy to splash through. Up high the snow had already melted a bit and then re-froze into a hard icy crust. It was slow, hard going. I LOVE riding in the snow and even I was miserable!

And if I was miserable, she had to be really miserable. I had come prepared, with a warm, heavy coat, good gloves, and thermal pants under my jeans. She hadn’t. I had offered her some hand warmers I had kept in my pockets which she gratefully accepted, but still, she had to be freezing!

We took turns clearing a path until the snow started to overtake my stirrups. My horse stopped. I pushed him forward a bit hesitantly. He sighed, reached down and started nosing the snow. Pretty quickly he uncovered a log. A tree must have fallen over the trail. It was impossible to tell how wide it was or if there was a way around it. That was the very last hint I needed!

I turned back around to her and said that we couldn’t go any farther. Her whole body drooped. At first I thought it was with disappointment. Then I looked closer. Her face was as white as the snow that surrounded us, and her lips and eyelids were blue. That wasn’t disappointment, that was a sigh of relief! What the heck?!

Turning our horses around was the easiest thing we had done in a long time. Since we had already cleared the trail, the only thing we had to worry about heading home were small patches of snow that had packed down as frozen again as ice in our hoof-prints. Luckily, we had good, sure footed horses.

Once we got down off of the mountain my companion once again became quite talkative. “You know, it really wasn’t that deep. My horse that I had when I was a kid would have made it no problem!”

And so it was on that note that we made it home five hours after we had left the barn, having never made it to the spring. I didn’t get tipped, but I didn’t care. I was just thankful to the horses for the heart they showed and for how hard they worked at getting us as far as they had. I could tell they were both tired, sore and used up from the adventure.

I still don’t know what that gal was trying to prove, and to who. I have wondered if she went back east and told her friends about the wimpy Arizona wrangler who didn’t really know what riding in the snow was. Maybe she did. But even if she did, I think there was something more going on that I never will find out.

I’d like to say that it only took that little incident to teach me to use better judgment when it came to trying to make others happy, but it didn’t. It took a much more serious wreck for me to finally understand that the snow and ice needs to be respected. And, only someone who is out on the trail daily should be the judge of what is, and is not a good idea. I think maybe it’s time that I write about that one next.

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