By Patty Wilber
Three a.m. in the New Mexico autumn is dark, with a chill, but that is when the alarm bleeped, repeatedly. The bed was murmuring “don’t go!” and that soft green blanket was really, well, soft. And warm.
Not enthusiastically, got up anyway, pulled on some clothes, and stumbled (carefully) down to the barn to feed.
Not the standard storybook fare of apples or carrots or oats. Nope, we’re talking working horses, feed ’em something sturdy and affordable. A flake of alfalfa hay and a flake of grass hay for each equid. We were leaving in a hour and they were facing a long day of driving to the cow pens and a good many miles of riding.
Drove for four hours, saddled, and tied on saddle bags and slickers even though over head was the intense blue New Mexico sky, cloudless. Last year the aspens were decorated in gold, but this year the cold is just hitting the high country. Not enough time to cause the light harvesting pigments in the leaves to degrade to their flashy last splash.
We took off…at a walk. No leaping upon the bare-backed steed and galloping across the grassy meadow, because a) I no longer have the spring of my high school high-jumping self who could bounce onto a 17 hand horse from the ground, b) no meadows; the ride starts on a rutted dirt lane between two barbed wire (Bob Why-er, if yer from Texas) fences, and c) even endurance horses that can cover 100 rugged miles in less than 10 hours, do not gallop from end to end across the day.
We jog-trotted (slow trot, easy to ride, and ground-covering, without blowing up the horse) quite a bit. Galloping? Not at all. We will gather cows this afternoon, after the 18 mile ride, and then push cows out tomorrow. No point in wasting energy now.
The day progressed to shirt-sleeve warm. No wind. Good horses, good weather, no grading, no computers, no cock-eyed personalitied biology students! No place I’d rather be.
Last week’s cold, wind-driven rain and slick footing was an adrenaline rush challenge (yeah, I wanna be a cowgirl!); this is deep in my soul easy.
The elk and deer were everywhere in June, when we were the first ones up country after the winter snows. Now they are hidden in the trees; hunting season has begun. They’ve been replaced. By cows. In fact, so many gates have been left open by thoughtless hunters or lazy-ass forest users, that at least four herds are hopelessly mixed. “Leave the gates as you found them” is a good rule of thumb…except what to do when you are pretty sure they should be closed and they are open???
We made the eastern edge of the ranch in good time, but then took the long cut to get in at the bottom where the fence is not good and some neighbor cows have been interloping. Slithered down steep slopes of loose volcanic ash that I would have preferred to avoid (shut up and ride, I wanna be a cowBOY). Both horses were even tempered and sure on their feet. We did find some neighbor cows, but none of ours.
Ours were grazing the big meadows east of the bunk house–40 of the 62 anyway. Sent five neighbor cows out a spot on the north fence that was down. Fixed the hole. Then we bunched the rest and moved them closer to the horse pasture where we planned to hold them for the night. The horses had to work back and forth, first to mobilize and then to motivate the grass-fat bovines. They had to be quick over rough ground. Wanna be a cow HORSE? They worked up a full body sweat.
Next we dropped over into Barlow Creek to look for my big red cow. She likes to hang out there, away from the main herd, with her own personal entourage. Up and down, more steep terrain. The two horses, after 8 hours of riding were still right there for us. Very game. Penny is just four and Tabooli, although older, at five, has only 1/3 the number of training hours. As TrainerMom, am Very Pleased!
Found Red and Co., and pushed them up to the first group. This left 10 still missing, so we made a big loop: back down to Barlow, turned left instead of right and rode east, into the night, as the sky softened through yellow-orange to mauve and starlight gradually filled the moonless sky. It went from shirt sleeve warm to fleece hat, gloves and three layers on top, cold. At 10,000 feet, when the sun disappears, the warmth follows, immediately.
Untacked with the help of the head lamps, and brushed the caked sweat streaks off the horses.
Penny still has her short summer show coat, and although Tabooli has begun to hair up I’d sent blankets up in a truck coming in from the other side. Given the long day, and the cold night, blankets would reduce stress. T went in a pen too small for two horses when one is PMS-y…yes that would be Penny. So, she was hobbled outside. They both got big piles of alfalfa, and water. No apples. No oats.
Both horses looked sucked up in the flanks–like grey hounds instead of their usual plump selves. By morning, T looked normal–he eats and drinks very well away from home. Penny still looked a little dehydrated, although she did eat well.
They were saddled at dawn, which is 6:30 ish at this time of year, and had another ends-at-dark day, starting with finding the last 10 cows and ending with all 62 off the mountain, down at the pens. In the last big pasture we crossed, Penny (who was working on only three shoes all day–one came off on the night loop) and I went to move the resident bovines out of our path so we didn’t gain mass as our bunch passed through. She still had it in her to lope a long way at a good clip and get after those cows, then come back to ours, who were moving at the speed of molasses in January at this point, and get after them.
The cows are all at the farm near Estancia, NM now. Horses got new shoes Thursday and the week off! (And still no apples.) I wanna be a cowgirl.