Written by Preston Bates
I spent the first half of my life riding Thoroughbreds and other warmbloods in a flat or hunt seat saddle. Certainly, an exciting type of horse to ride and one that can teach you a lot.
I didn’t ride a western saddle till my late teens while on a bit of a trip out west and even then, I didn’t ride it properly. The stirrups were way too short to allow the saddle to work the way it was intended. And the horse it was on was an old walker/draft cross which didn’t do much for me.
Looking back, I now realize it was the perfect horse doing its job perfectly. But, at the time I thought that if a horse wasn’t going 30 mph I might as well step off. After that short trip I went back east, and back to my hot horses and little saddles, much unimpressed with western riding other than the scenery.
When I was about 30, I took a trip out west with friends to a ranch to do some cowboy riding and trout fishing. It was a life-changing trip in many ways. I was riding a real western horse for the first time, I was riding the right way in a western saddle for the first time, I helped gather cattle for the first time, I smelled sage on a warm morning breeze for the first time; I rode over snow-covered trails in June for the first time, I smelled Aspen and Pinon on a campfire for the first time, I caught a cutthroat trout in a snowmelt stream for the first time. And I heard a night hawk make a midnight dive for the first time.
When we first got to the ranch, we were assigned horses and I drew a big, stout, red roan gelding. He had cannon bones like baseball bats, a back so short that I was worried if a saddle would fit and a roman-nosed head so long that he could drink the last gallon outta the 55-gallon barrel and still be looking over the top rim at ya. He also had some kinda crazy hieroglyphic brand on the crest of his neck under his mane. When I asked our guide, it was explained he was a mustang that came from the BLM (Bureau of land management) and then adopted out. The brand, if you knew how to read it told you when, where, and at what age he was captured. I’d never heard of a mustang; this was long before they’d made the news and all the controversy had started to swirl. I, like many easterners, was intrigued by the thought of the wild American horse running free across the western landscapes. As I brushed him down for the first time, we exchanged an eye, and both liked what we saw.
That first day we went to gather up some yearling steers out of some eroded sandstone wash country, it was kinda like some other planetary landscape that was unlike anything I had ever seen before, much less ridden before. A lacework and maze of little gullies and ridges from 6 feet deep and high to 30 feet deep and high. There were stunted trees strewn about and little box canyons with walls covered in sea fossils. This place was crazy!
The riding was crazy as well, like none I’d ever done. We were east coast yahoos who knew nothing about working cattle. All we knew was from movies and TV so, of course, we went full steam ahead! We all knew how to stay on a horse, it was how most of the group made a living. But we didn’t know how to ride.
We had a hell of a great time though chasing steers up and down “Coulees” and ridges. I was just amazed at what this horse was able to do! He climbed, he slid, he spun, and he run. I was pretty much just along for the ride. It was only a moment or two before I realized this horse LOVED chasing cattle! And he sure didn’t need any encouragement to do it.
It was so dang fun! He anticipated what the bovine was going to do and made plans and arrangements of his own. Up a little ridge and down to cut one-off or fast break of speed to get by one, and a quick turn to send it the other way. Wow!
I’d not been having much to do with the decision making and everything was going well! That hadn’t always been the case the few times I’d allowed a Thoroughbred to make a decision. This mustang knew what he was doing, loved what he was doing, and was enjoying having me along for the ride as much as I was enjoying the ride. An hour or so later my friend and I had gathered up our own little bunch of steers and found our way to a creek under some Cottonwood trees where we took a break in the shade and let the horses water and cool their heels.
“How much fun was that?!” my friend exclaimed. “More fun than I think I’ve ever had!” I admitted. More fun than breaking a horse out of a starting gate, more fun than taking a dirt bike up a hill climb, more fun than riding a smooth bucking horse to a standstill, more fun than riding a fast and loud motorcycle on a warm summer night, feeling the warm and cool spots as the road dipped and rose, more fun than just about anything. We’d had the time of our lives in just over an hour!
I swung down and took a leak as my horse ripped at the creekside grass, then I dipped my hat in the cool water soaking my head as I settled it back on sending a shiver down my spine. I breathed deep the smells that were all new to me. Breathed them in and held them at that halfway point where you get the most out of a smell. I thought to myself that I need to file these smells away for someday.
I scooped some cool water in my hands from the creek and swept them over my horse’s face wiping away the sweat and making him roll his eyes up into his head - then he looked at me - there was something deeper in his eyes than I’d ever seen before. I’d known hundreds of horses by this time, and I tell ya this was something different. You can tag it with any name that you wish, and none would be wrong.
Over the next week, this horse showed me a whole new way to think of a horse. Because this horse thought. He was a fast walker, much faster than the rest on the trail so we were out front on the days we went sightseeing. The guide back behind would whistle and point if need be but onward that horse and I went. Down the valley along with the trout-filled creek in the meadows and trees, he was solid and all business stepping over logs and slow footing through the rocky creek bed. No jumping, no jigging, no excitement just smooth, smooth, smooth. And he was the same as we went up what I then thought were scary trails to the mountain tops. Really nothing now that I look back. But they made me think that I would never take any goofy-footed Thoroughbred up that trail. This horse would slow when we got to a sketchy spot such as a rock scree slope and test each foot before he put all his weight on it. I’d never known a horse to do that. A sense of self-preservation. I’d never known that before. What a concept.
The week went by too fast, and I was certainly sad to leave that horse behind. But I was so glad that I had made his acquaintance. A few horses have changed my life or my approach to it, and he was one of the first.
Fast forward a few years and I had made the decision to leave the east coast, racehorses, friends, and family behind and head west.
You’ll have to read part two for the rest of the story!