I am not a fan of reality television.
In fact, with the exception of a passing glimpse of the evening news and a few favorites on the cooking channel, I don’t actually watch a whole lot of tv.
A recent find on the National Geo Wild channel changed all that.
One cold weekend in December we happened upon the first of a three-part series called “Mustang Millionaire.” The basic premise of the show was to follow the adventures of five horse trainers as they bought a wild mustang from one of several approved government sales early in 2013 and trained it for 120 days. After the training period was finished, the trainers would show the horse in a big horse show, competing for $1 million in total prize money. The first place prize alone paid a whopping $200,000 cash plus a brand new Dodge Ram pickup.
This program fascinated me on a couple of different levels. First of all, how does one take a creature that has lived as a wild animal for its entire life and in only four months be performing reining patterns and tricks on it in the middle of the jam-packed Fort Worth stock show arena? Topping that was the surprising realization that these mustang trainers were competing for more than twice the purse of the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity, where trainers show horses that they have been riding and preparing for almost two years, and which cost tens and sometimes of hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy as a young prospect. It didn’t seem right somehow.
Nonetheless, we were all pretty intrigued by the program, none more than Annabelle, who declared that someday she, too, would be competing in the Mustang Million competition. We looked up the data and requirements on the mustang shows and found that they did in fact offer an opportunity for youngsters to show a mustang, allowing trainers as young as eight years old to gentle and exhibit a yearling filly. That really got Annabelle going.
Thank god she is only seven.
Anyway, since that day we have had much discussion amongst the household about mustangs. In an amazing display of coincidence, when we took our horses last Saturday over to the Lucky Run arena in Kuna to ride, we got into a discussion with a fellow rider who had just ridden out at the Wilson Creek BLM Management area the previous weekend. She told us of the excitement of spotting and observing a herd of wild horses right near the trailer parking area. The Wilson Creek area is home to the Hardtrigger BLM Herd Management Area, which is the range for to up to 160 wild horses at a time according to the BLM website.
We have ridden at Wilson Creek before, a couple of times. In fact, during one momentous ride last spring, I was privy to the sight of not one but two separate bands of mustangs, which I photographed copiously to share with my horse crazy progeny, who was in school that day. Annabelle and I rode together at Wilson Creek after that, in the hopes that she could see the horses for herself, but the last time we rode there we famously became a little lost and worried for a while that we might have to eat Winston to survive the night.
Well, we actually didn’t think we’d have to eat Winston, but nonetheless Annabelle lost all navigational trust in me that day and has subsequently refused to even consider returning to Wilson Creek to ride while under my direction.
I don’t really blame her.
Anyway, after talking to Katie about the wild horses for awhile I sensed that my little girl’s mental wheels were turning. We were driving to our friend Christine’s house for dinner that night when she got an inspiration. “Mom, do you think we could see if Christine wants to go with us to Wilson Creek tomorrow to see the wild horses? I’ll ride Reno and she can ride Grumpy.” We have ridden with Christine quite a few times in the past, and Annabelle trusts her implicitly not to get us lost, and takes comfort in the fact that she knows how to operate her GPS effectively. As well as the 9mm sidearm she never leaves home without.
I agreed that we should invite Christine out, since I love to ride with her and I was also pretty sure she hadn’t been on a long trail ride since her return from her family’s year long sailing excursion last fall (www.truansea.com), if you’d like to read their awesome blog about it), though I warned Annabelle our friend might not be able to go on such short notice.
We hadn’t been in the door of Christine’s house two minutes before my ultra-focused daughter inquired about her riding availability. To all of our mutual delight, she reported that she was available to go out the next day and would love to join us. That settled it.
Annabelle was up early on Sunday preparing. She cleaned out the horse trailer and filled it with a fresh bag of shavings. She filled the hay bags with feed for the trip and somehow managed to hoist them over her head to clip them in place for each horse in the trailer. Then she caught the horses and insisted on loading them all herself while Christine and I watched on.
She is a bit of a show-off, that kid.
We made the thirty-minute drive to Wilson Creek in good spirits. Christine said it had been at least twenty years since she had ridden that area, and Annabelle told her all about the time I had gotten us lost there.
When we got to the parking lot we unloaded and started saddling up. Christine had her own saddle and packs for Grumpy, and Annabelle directed her as to the proper grooming techniques and bridle to be used for her horse. Bossy little thing.
Given that it was a cold afternoon (the temperature gauge on my truck said 27 when we arrived) with remnants of snow covering the rocky ground, we were surprised that there were a few fellow riders in the parking area getting ready to hit the trails. Just as we were about ready to head out ourselves, we were joined by one more truck and trailer. It parked right beside us, and the two gentlemen got out of the vehicle and headed right over to where we stood.
They wanted to talk about Reno, who was looking quite sporty with his pink vet-wrapped front legs, which perfectly matched his rider’s winter coat and stocking hat. The conversation sort of took off from there, and we learned our new friends names (Jim and Bob) and that it was Bob’s birthday that day. Jim and Bob were frequent riders at Wilson Creek, and told us that they had just spotted the wild horses the previous weekend.
They went back to their trailer and started saddling their own mounts, and in a few minutes called over to us. They were inviting us to ride along with them. They thought they just might be able to find the wild horses for Annabelle.
Now normally I am a pretty cautious rider, and I certainly would not have ridden off into the back country with a couple of strange men, especially with my seven-year old daughter along. But we were with Christine. And Christine’s gun. And they looked like really nice guys.
Annabelle was vocally eager to throw our lot in with them, and after little hesitation we all headed out together, Reno trotting along to keep up with the faster pace of Lightning and Dakota, Bob and Jim’s experienced trail horses.
Despite the cold, it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and there was no wind. That was why it was easy to get lulled into a sense of ease and tranquility.
Which didn’t last forever.
We headed off pretty much due south, and started climbing right away. After about an hour the path became icy and narrow. This was no problem for Lightning and Dakota, nor for Reno, who has done many a back country mile on his stubby black legs.
But Christine and I were riding arena horses. Show horses. Horses that were wearing metal shoes that slipped on the icy frozen snow. I was getting nervous.
I told myself not to be a baby. And then I heard Christine, who was riding behind me call out. “Are you comfortable on this trail, Paula?” My reply was swift. “Not really,” I answered. “Grumpy is struggling a bit on the ice,” she reported back.
After a brief discussion we decided to get off and lead the horses for a bit, and our guides promised to divert shortly over to a trail that would not be so slick. For her part Annabelle was pretty disgusted with us older ladies, opting to stay on her horse instead of walking.
After of course she made sure we understood that this did not mean we were turning around. After a bit we did get off the ice. Mostly. But we kept on climbing.
Annabelle kept right up with Lightning. Christine and I plugged along as best we could. Our horses were out of shape, and unaccustomed to the steep terrain. We were afraid to push them too hard.
We stopped here and there for pictures of each other. I still looked pretty happy here.
Christine loved riding Grumpy. Of course. He is a gem.
She didn’t even mind the pink polo wraps that Annabelle had carefully wrapped around Grumpy’s front legs before we left. Even though they totally didn’t match her orange saddle bags and holster.
All along, whenever the front riders waited for us to catch up and we got to chat for a bit, Annabelle kept up a running commentary. The commentary varied somewhat along the way but it had one common theme. Something along the lines of “It is SO NICE to ride with people who know what they are doing for a change.”
We rode and we rode. There was no sign of the wild horses. Well, except for the giant “stallion piles” that sporadically littered the trail we followed.
We circled around and finally we came to the top of the mesa, looking out over the entire valley below in a view I never get tired of.
From the vantage point on top of our trusty steeds we saw the valley below. We saw the massive feedlot that held thousands of cows. We saw the clear blue sky crisscrossed by fluffy white airplane vapor trails.
We saw the road. The road that would take us RIGHT BACK TO THE TRAILER. The road was RIGHT THERE. So close I could almost touch it.
What we didn’t see were any wild horses.
I was cold. Freckles was tired. Grumpy was sweaty. We had been riding for almost three hours. Tomorrow was Monday, a school day. I was ready to be done.
Annabelle was not.
Jim and Bob said we could turn east and expand our loop a little. It would increase our riding time, but there was one more draw where the horses might be.
I wanted to say no. The road back to the trailer was RIGHT THERE.
But Annabelle answered for us. “YES! I am riding until we find the horses! You can go back to the truck and wait for me if you want mom, but I am not giving up!” As unlikely as it sounds, I think she actually meant that…..she would totally have gone on without me. As if I’d have let her.
I sighed. Freckles sighed. Grumpy sighed. Christine smiled indulgently.
And we set off. Annabelle rode further in front of us than ever, Reno trotting along tirelessly to keep up with the quick strides of Bob’s blazer, Lightning. We rode through one draw and over the top of the next. Inside I was bemoaning our decision to ride with strangers. My legs hurt and I was worried I would cripple my irreplaceable show horse on this wild goose chase.
Suddenly, as the tiny-appearing riders crested a ridge in front of us Annabelle stopped. She and Bob both pointed. Then she looked down at where Christine and I slowly approached, Freckles and Grumpy picking carefully along the lava covered hillside.
And she raised her finger to her lips in the age-old symbol for quiet. She waved her arms again to make sure we were looking, and said “quiet” again in sign language.
They had seen the horses.
As I crested the hill, I saw what they were looking at. At first I saw only one horse.
Then a few more sauntered over the far away ridge.
We sat quietly, taking turns passing around field glasses for a closer look. Well, actually Annabelle kept them the whole time.
The band of horses continued to grow, filing over the hill one-by-one, until they trailed across the hillside in a long line of mares and nearly-grown foals, followed at a watchful distance by the solid colored bay stallion.
When they were all over the ridge, they stopped to look at us.
We rode a little closer, but of course as we approached they moved further away. Freckles and all the other horses were fascinated by the sight of them.
All sense of being tired and cold left me as I marveled at the privileged site in front of us. They were just brumbies, I knew, but there was something majestic about them too.
I just loved all those big white blazes.
After we watched the band for twenty minutes or so it was time to head back down toward the trucks. We had almost an hour ride left to get back, and the darkness was inching toward us.
We peeled Annabelle away from the horses with some difficulty, and headed back down the hill.
A brisk breeze had picked up as the sun lowered in the sky, and it was getting really cold as we rode along.
But it had been worth it.
We pulled into home just as darkness fell. Christine insisted on helping us to unload the horses and get them settled in before she left for her house. We both had to sit and watch as Annabelle unloaded the horses from the trailer one-by-one, all by herself.
She is a goer, that one.
When we finally made it inside Desperate Hubby and Batman had prepared a feast of beef and elk tacos with rice-a-roni for dinner and had a big fire going in the fireplace. It was heaven on earth.
The perfect end to a perfect day.