Saturday, April 20, 2013

Lessons in Ranch Living for City Girls #14: A neophyte can learn that a horse is not a dog. And you gotta have friends. Part I.

Mind you, my experience with horses up until my move to Montana was with well broke, older guys.  Horses that had been around the block.  Who had seen their share of greenhorns and dudes and who had developed a benign tolerance for the inexperienced rider.  Horses who would bide their time, accepting me on their back, until they could get back to the barn and to their preferred vocation - eating.  I'm sure a number of them even rolled their benevolent, kind eyes when they saw me approach.  Fancied myself a decent rider, I did.  Mostly managed to stay on (there was one glaring exception, as my sister will probably remember), mostly managed to look like the real deal.  Ish.  I had the boots, anyway.  And I kept my back straight.

Baby boy, Tulsa
The Most Beautiful Horse on the
Face of the Planet
Then I moved to Montana, where horses are a way of life.  Where the Blackfeet and their horses are a glory to behold.  When a Blackfeet cowboy or cowgirl is horseback, they seem to share the same blood circulation and it truly is an amazing thing to see two beings in such harmony... Go to an Indian Relay Race at a rodeo in the west, and you'll see what I mean.  Cowboys and cowgirls will spend thousands on a roping horse or travel to Canada for a trailer load of bucking horses, and keep those horses better than they keep themselves.  These are not pampered, weekend horses like the ones I've known in the past, and it's taken me a while to wrap my mind around the fact that they are working animals, with a job to do.  I've tended to treat them like dogs, which I know is a mistake, but there you are...  There are, however, far too many unwanted horses out here, so that's been a harsh lesson for me, too.  Out of sight, out of mind horses, lost in the vast expanse of the plains of Montana, surviving (or not) difficult winters, predators, and injuries.

Happily, our horses have done just fine out on winter pasture, thank you very much, and are due here in a month or so!  It'll be so good.  It was a huge surprise for me when I discovered how much I missed having them here at the ranch.  (Although, when we turned them out, I was in tears and they just walked away without so much as a how do you do, so my missing them may be one sided!)  Looking forward to having another broken or bruised body part because I don't know enough to stay out of their way and not allow them in my personal space!  They need to come back - I've taken to naming the moose pair who have been crisscrossing the pasture.  Tulip and Lily.  I know...  An homage to my friend, Julie, an amazing gardener with a wicked sense of humor.

Our Allison with Bayley, Ranch Dog
Anyway, that first summer, I learned a lot about horses from Bill.  Lots of technical stuff, lots of just how to be around them, lots of how to ride, and lots of how to read them without losing sight of the fact that they're all individuals with unique personalities.  I also learned tons from Allison, who was Bill's right hand wrangler/cook/vet, etc., last summer and who has remained a dear friend.  Allison is wise beyond her years.  She has an amazing intuition when it comes to these magnificent animals and a lovely way of explaining things so that a neophyte like me can "get" it.  I remember a conversation we had while we were out watching Bill work in the round pen (we had lots of those "therapy sessions" as we called them)...  Horse herds are like high school kids, Allison says.  You have the bitchy, mean girl cheerleaders (a couple of sorrel mares we had for the summer), the mid-semester newbies and transfers who are unsure of their place (Tulsa and Pink), misunderstood bullies (Mouse, who has a terrible Napoleon complex), the followers (Two Medicine, Mouse's buddy and my favorite mount), the athletic boys who can't be bothered (Hombre, Lizard, Truman), the Greta Garbo (Whit, who wants to be alone and crib),etc.  You get the picture.  I loved that analogy!  Especially having been one of the unwashed masses in high school - the middle-of-the-roaders, neither the queen nor Carrie.

Bill, Allison and our hunter/jumper Pink

Horses are a way and a means of life up here at the ranch.  The beloved is an amazing horseman, mostly fearless (but cautious when required), in tandem with whichever horse he's working at the moment.  Of late, it's been my big, beautiful, aforementioned paint colt and baby boy, Tulsa who will be all of three years old this coming July 4th.  And Pink, a glorious sorrel filly that we came to own in a roundabout way.  Pink started out terribly fearful, probably five years old, although we're not sure of that.  She had never been handled by a human, never been away from her mother, and had to be caught and put in a stock to get a halter (a pink halter, hence her name) on her so she could get into the trailer that would bring her to her new home.  When Bill first started working with Pink in the round pen, she was terrified and looking for any escape.  She's not a tall horse, but she cleared a five foot fence with ease (see attached photographic evidence).  Cleared it multiple times.  

Pink and our yearling filly, Sweet Grass in the round pen

As the summer progressed, she calmed and learned, but remained a bit aloof and unsure.  She was at ease with Allison, and even learned to enjoy a bath (we have photographic evidence of that as well, but will  have to clear that with Allison!).  She was brushed and groomed and had gentle hands on her body - nothing in anger, nothing to make her fearful.  Bill was sure to work her with other horses in the round pen at first so that she would have a "herd" and a feeling of safety.  

She's come a long way, thanks to Bill's skills as a horseman and trainer.  At the end of summer, just before we sent her to winter out where the snow isn't 30 feet deep, he got on her back and rode her in the round pen.  I have no pictures - just some of him putting some weight in the saddle a few days before.  I was, as Bill says, in the moment.  She'll be a fine, fine horse, trained with patience and time, leadership, love and care.
Bill and Pink, trust at the end of the summer

Tulsa, hooking on
When Tulsa came to live at the ranch as a two year old, he and Pink bonded and are pretty inseparable now - he's her herd.  We keep them separate from the others for the most part, partly because they are Bill's "works in progress" and partly because they just really do well together.  They also get beat up a bit when they're with the other horses, so there's that.  They won't be part of the herd we use with guests of the ranch, but will be our personal saddle horses.  I identified with Pink on a number of levels.  Being the "new girl" and feeling ill at ease in that role, is probably the most glaring example.  I also bonded with Allison, who for purposes of this ramble, I'm putting in the Tulsa role.  I was fortunate to have found a friend (like a daughter, really) in Allison.  As Pink found Tulsa.  She helped see me through my hard transition from City Girl to St. Bernard Wrangler!  And like Pink, I have calmed and learned, but am still a little unsure of my place in the herd.  But I'm getting there!

This ranch and this country are places to learn.  About life in the West.  About horses.  About what it takes to be a true friend.  I've found that lessons abound in all of those things.

Me and Two Medicine.  He's reliable, honest, and takes good care of this neophyte!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Lessons in Ranch Living for City Girls #211

  In Montana, even on a sunny day, you can be blind.

So, up here in the great white north, we have something known as a "ground blizzard".  Coming from Oklahoma, I never even knew this existed, but apparently, it's a common occurrence in areas with a lot of wind and snow, both of which Northwestern Montana has in abundance.  Conditions have to be cold enough so the snow stays nice and fluffy and blowable, also not a problem up here in the Arctic.  Up at the ranch, the wind is sometimes a factor, but the drive down the mountain to the east is where you may become airborne and blow to Kansas, or at least to Chouteau or the Steiner Ranch.   It's the wind that'll get you every time...  My daily drive consists of the ranch side of the Divide (as in the Continental Divide), the Summit, and the other side of the Divide.  Far and away, I would choose the ranch side every time.  At Bear Creek, the snow is lovely when it falls, and not so lovely when it doesn't stop falling and we get a heck of a lot of it.  But the road guys are on it like birds on a worm and The Horseman is on the driveway in the same way - he uses it as a form of winter exercise since he's an exercising fool.  It certainly can get dicey.  Slush, ice, curvy roads, Canadians.  But you can take your time and provided you're not a Hyundai SUV driving woman who passes me way too often, going way too fast, you're not likely to meet your maker on our little stretch of road up to Marias Pass and the Summit. 

It's the OTHER side...  You're driving along, minding your own business, singing badly to Adele, wishing you were snug and warm in bed, and until recently, you're also in the dark.  Suddenly, and with little warning, you simply can't see anything at all. Not just in front of you, but ANYTHING. In any direction. Except white.  That’s a ground blizzard. Using your brights isn’t an option - that just reflects a crapload of snow right back at you and you feel like you're in Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon hits warp drive, or hyper-drive, or whatever, and you get that star field thingy.  You know what I mean.  So you slow and tense, until you clear it, and you pray that the snowplow driver who nicely pulled over (love those guys) so you could pass just a couple of miles back, or the SUV driving maniac woman (I've stalked her to the post office so I can see what crazy looks like), for that matter, don't slam into you.  Because you can't just stop since the people who may be behind you can't see either.  I've wanted to just stop where I am, cry, and take my chances, but thankfully the self-preservation instinct kicks in and I keep going.

Driving back from East Glacier one day with the beloved, we went through a true blizzard up from EG to the Summit and, although I'm thankful every day for him, I have never been so thankful that he was with me and doing the driving.  We had to roll down the window on my side so we could just make out the reflectors so we wouldn't fly off the road into oblivion, or at least into a snow bank.  And the windshield was icing since there was no way that the defroster could keep up.  Haven't been that tense in a while, but he got us home safe and sound, with nary a broken sweat, although he’s told me since then that he was a bit tense himself.  We heard later that a truck jackknifed up there just after we went through and that several people pulled over at stayed at the Snow Slip Inn because they just could not keep going.  Smart people.

On the curvy, mountain road, the blowing waxes and wanes and passes.  The road from East Glacier to Browning is another matter entirely.  The terrain is flatter, rolling plains out there, and as much I love those powerful plains that lead up to the Front Range of the Northern Rockies, that drive scares the crap out of me and I've feared for my little, insignificant life on more than one occasion.  Again, it's the wind...  My car, Flash, is little.  And while that's fantastic for gas mileage in Montana where a three and a half hour drive is “not bad”, it's not so good when you're driving in a ground blizzard with "range livestock" running around (there was a horse just the other day, cruising along, having a wrong-side-of-the-fence munch-fest, and I see cows out and about and gossiping over the fence on a regular basis).  Flash is light.  And so he literally blows sideways on ice in those not uncommon 70mph winds.  He's also vertically challenged, so when the big trucks and SUVs are above the fray, Flash and I are in the thick of it.  That's a new and not a good feeling.  I've been advised to "ride the rumble strip".  Uh, huh.  But, "make sure it's your right wheel and not your left, because that could be bad".  Yep.  I've also heard of a doctor and his wife, on their way to work, who kept going in those white-out conditions, again because you have no choice, wondering why they hadn't made it to Browning yet.  They eventually stopped, and discovered they were out in a fenceless pasture...  I guess they missed the rumble strip.   Conditions were that rough and they apparently were going very slowly, but it’s THAT kind of blind. 

So, when I make it to EG on the way home, stop in at EG Trading Company for some steak, I pry my fingers out of the grooves they’ve made in the steering wheel and share my harrowing saga of almost hitting Sasquatch or a horse or a FedEx truck or a cow or an Albertan (who just seem to cruise along in any kind of weather).   I get "oh, it's not so bad" and I'm a bit worried about what might constitute "bad"...

Obviously I have no photos of the harrowing drives since that would be insanity.  I'm crazy, but not THAT crazy...

Friday, February 22, 2013

Lessons in Ranch Living for City Girls #1

Well, my dear, dear friends (as The Horseman is fond of jokingly calling you), after months, and more lessons than I'm able to count on all of my own fingers and toes (even if I was Ann Boelyn with her unusual number of digits, and I'm not), the dog's fingers and toes and Sasquatch's fingers and toes, the dust is clearing and I am finally ready, willing and able-ish to start my formal "Lessons in Ranch Living for City Girls".  As an aside, Sasquatch apparently divides his time between my backyard here and my old backyard in Oklahoma... There's a "Sasquatch Hunt" here, run by a local bar up the road (Hey Bill!), that basically consists of hordes of drunken people screaming in the woods, looking for some guy in a gorilla suit.  But I digress.  Some of you have been reading my FB postings on the subject of my deer in the headlight experiences with a mixture of amusement and pity, so let's continue the trend, shall we?  I'll expect pity when required/requested and laughter when appropriate, but usually a combination of the two will work...

I have found that I am a work in progress through this whole life changing move across the freaking country to be with a man I really didn't know and who could have been an ax-murdering, bury-women-in-the-back-country or feed-em-to-the-grizz kind of guy.  Thankfully, those tendencies haven't emerged yet, at least not the ax-murder and back country parts, but the night is young.  I have heard talk about feeding hippies to bears, though.   I think most hippies who inadvertently find themselves in these parts come from Missoula or Bozeman, where there are lattes and bookstores and a little nightlife, and the Hi-Line is far from there...   Not sure they know about the camouflage-wearing, bow hunting, Ted Nugent (male or female)  types that emerge from the woods at the scenes of accidents or they might rethink their route.   You take your life into your own hands up here if you have a PETA or Save the Wolves bumper sticker, or even a "7" plate (Flathead County), so they don't venture this far north very often!  Once you make it to East Glacier, 17 miles east of us, you can breathe easy for a bit before traveling on down the road since EG is a very eclectic, welcoming little community and you’ll be OK. Mostly, I'm just thankful I'm not a hippie.  Again with the digression thing...

Anyway, it was a leap of faith for love, or something like it.  Not usually my style since I'm generally a cautious kind of person.  Since said move, I have found that I know a whole lot less than I thought I did about a whole lot of things.  Some days, I know absolutely everything about everything (imagine that I'm 13 years old - THAT kind of know everything) and am every bit as smart as I have The Horseman fooled into thinking I am.  And then some days, I know that the look on my face is sheer horror at what I've chosen to do with my life now that I've grown up.  But sometimes, the look has got to be blissful, goofy, disgusting happiness at that same choice.   Some days, I feel like a canvas of blues and greens, somewhat introspective and serene, awash in light and a Monet from afar.  Other times, Jackson Pollack threw up all over me, and I'm crazed, potentially violent (kidding a little on that one - but not much) and just a big ol' mess.  Or I'm a walking, talking Edvard Munch painting...

Some days, I feel like getting out and conquering the vast, yet somehow well insulated and smallish, world around me, meeting all the neighbors and FOB (Friends of Bill) and ingratiating myself into their well established, orderly lives.  Other days, I want to simply hide away with our big dog, Bayley, who really is the sweetest canine on the face of the planet, and watch bad Lifetime Television for Women movies.  Thankfully, THOSE days are few and far between, which is mostly because I have a healthy outward disdain for LMN, even though, secretly,  I've been known to pass an afternoon in the company of Lisa Hartman-Black or Melissa Gilbert and their respective love lives. But one day, I'll choose a slothful day of bad movies and it'll be just fine, even though I have more things that need doing than I can possibly accomplish in the course of a day.

My sister has said that my life is like a TV movie without the murder, which I find terribly funny.   She's like that - terribly funny when you least expect it.  She got that from my angel of a mother, who is also terribly funny when least expected in addition to being the most kind woman on earth.  I like that there's no murder, yet, since I'm happy with The Horseman and, as I've said, I don't think either of us has active homicidal tendencies. I tend to think that if we can make it through this first oppressive winter, which everyone up here calls "open" and "not bad" (bwahahahaha!!!!), we'll be just fine. We've certainly had our moments, which have tended to come from without and not from within, and I'm sure there will be more, but I think the love that we feel is solid and is deepening with time.  Or he just accepts that I'm weird, loves me anyway, shakes his head and moves on...  Take your pick.  I know I can be a trial and somewhat needy and insecure, but usually not. And he can be a trial and somewhat distant and preoccupied, but usually not.

For me, I think the neediness comes from the lack of girlfriends up here.  I've always had a close group of women friends with whom to laugh and cry and just be silly and I find that I miss that terribly and quite often.   The deep and abiding friendships that have shared history and experience in common - these women "get" me.  And they love me anyway, and I love them.  Not that I haven't met anyone up here who might fill that void, and a couple of names come immediately to mind, but we're just so far from anyone that it's a little difficult.  It's not lunch at Yokozuna or B4C, or dinner at The Brook, or lunch and pseudo-shopping just so we can be together.  Or toes and fingers on the spur of the moment.  It's an all day excursion, involving miles and miles, and prior planning...  Not that I'm whining or that I don't have the prior planning gene, but seriously, I'd have to drive almost to Canada for one and clear to Idaho for another.  One is relatively close for the moment, but is headed to Cali to get on with her life in a few weeks.  And that one feels more like a daughter to me...  Most are long time FOB (he has an amazing number of close, wonderful friendships) and so I can be friends by association, with ready made broken ice, but those friendships that I cultivate all by myself are difficult to be found.  So far.

So this is my blog. I promise a good Lesson in Ranch Living for City Girls for the next go-round, which is rodeo-speak. I've become a rodeo girl and love the Indian Relay Races and Team Roping (The Horseman's specialty) the most - but I digress again.   I'm hoping it'll be a bit of therapy for me and a bit of amusement for you.  Or maybe a bit of therapy for you, too, since you'll be able to say "at least I'm not THAT crazy!".  It'll be a one-sided, self-serving conversation from the most vast and beautiful place on earth, where I am surrounded by the solid proof that there is a God in every direction I look.  And it'll be my place to just vent my feelings from a corner of the world and an unfamiliar life where I sometimes feel very small and insignificant.  Most of you know me well - some better than others.  A lot of you know what it was like for me when I arrived here at Bear Creek Ranch in lovely breathtaking Northwestern Montana, and for a time thereafter.  So most of you know that I don't give up easily even in the face of some pretty challenging stuff and to my own detriment sometimes.  (I wonder if I have the emotional self preservation gene...)  Hopefully, with the bad writing that you'll have to wade through to get to the gist of it all, you'll understand even more why I love where I've landed, who I've land with, and why it's been a soft place to fall. And worth the screaming, flailing, terrifying descent!