Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ranch recap: Horses

Aspens as seen from atop Hickory

My column in today's Briefing

I learned to get back in the saddle (when there is one)

The kids and I are home from a week at a guest ranch in Colorado. I'm still adjusting to flat land and tiny back yards and people who say "Hi" instead of "Hey, howdy, hey."

I planned the trip for Cooper and Katie, wanting to expose them to outdoor activities we don't get at home. I figured I'd have a good time watching them have a good time.

I didn't expect to fall in love with horseback riding.

I was tentative on Monday morning when I pulled myself up onto Hickory, a brown mare with a golden mane. My legs felt awkward, my knees strained. I feared the horse's power and my inexperience.

After two hours of riding across meadows and through mountain trails, I ached. I considered spending most of the week parked in a rocking chair on the front porch of the ranch lodge.

Instead, I refueled and rested at lunch and walked back to the barn for an afternoon ride.

It was a little easier, and I realized that with the help of Hickory I was able to see details in the mountain that are usually hidden. I was able to focus better on the ponderosa pines and aspens bordering the trails. I took greater notice of blooming wildflowers.

Just when I was comfortable with our gentle walks, it was time to learn trotting and loping. Hickory loved to jog and then run even though my arrhythmic bouncing was out of sync.

At the end of our runs, I was more breathless than the horse, probably more from anxiety than physical exertion.

Discomfort was discarded, though, when our group reached a sunlit meadow or a peak offering majestic views. I would pat Hickory's head and neck, thanking her for carrying me so far.

Hickory and the ranch's wranglers led me through bushwhacking rides, along steep precipices, through a section of the forest aptly called "Aspen Cathedral" and back and forth across the Canejos River.

By Saturday morning, Hickory and I were in sync. I knew when to use my feet vs. my hands vs. my voice. I knew just how much to lean forward or back depending on the incline. My post aligned with her trot.

Saturday afternoon all the ranch guests and staff gathered at the outdoor arena for a rodeo. Before the performances, one of the ranch owners unhitched two Belgian draft horses from an antique wagon and allowed guests to ride around the arena.

These giant horses (imagine a Clydesdale without so much feathering around the knees and hooves) were outfitted differently than the horses we'd ridden all week. They wore English-style reins instead of Western and just blankets – no saddles – on their backs.

Cooper and Katie safely circled the arena on the horses. Other children did, too, and then I took a turn.

The horse and I slowly walked around once. On the second turn, spectators encouraged me to trot. So I kicked the horse, and we trotted.

My rhythm didn't match his, though, and before long I was sliding to the left. With a slippery blanket underneath me and no stirrups for balance, I continued to fall, all the way to the dusty arena floor.

In those seconds that I was lying on my left side, I prayed over and over, "Please don't let this horse crush my head."

A wrangler rushed over and pulled me up, and I limped out of the arena, reminded of my inexperience and why I was anxious just a week before.

A few minutes later, I had regained enough composure to perform with Hickory in the rodeo. We navigated barrels and then poles while being judged on form. We walked slowly until we were clear of the obstacles and then gently trotted back.

After dinner that night, the staff awarded rodeo ribbons. I had earned a horsemanship award and a standing ovation from the wranglers for my performance with Hickory.

That ribbon and the memories and images from the week will last much longer than the aches on my left arm and hip.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. E-mail her at

Aspens in the forest

Tyra and a ranch wrangler Whitney at Rainbow Point

A view from a ride atop Hickory

From left: Tyra, Cooper, Tara, Ami, Rich and Sasha on Saturday's family ride

Katie and Cooper on the Belgian draft horses (they didn't fall off like their momma)

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