Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 10:45AM
Riding A Mustang Through the Woods on a Snowy Evening – by Makendra Silverman (The Cloud Foundation)
The still dry air and white-limbed trees beckoned me out after work to check on Royo and Arrow. This mustang mare and foal should be in the wild of their Montana home on this December evening but following a stressful helicopter roundup, an auction, two trailer rides, the process of learning to trust, and a birth in captivity, Arrow and Royo live in Colorado Springs with me.
I check on Royo first, palm him a horse cookie and hold his furry copper face in my arms before he pulls away to resume his dinner of hay. Next I go to see Arrow: another furry face, another treat. Her hair is long and tipped in frost. I use my gloves to brush her clean and lay a bareback pad over her back, tightening the fuzzy girth. Next a rope halter with snap-on reins. Arrow eats her dinner and on the snow-covered ground the hay looks especially sweet. I ask her to leave it, promising it will be there when we return. The short and sweet but highly opinionated roan mustang is the granddaughter of the famous wild stallion Cloud and the wise mare, Sitka. I use the picnic table as a mounting block and then we stand in the light of the barn, a stillness filling the air. As always, I feel remarkably fortunate to sit on Arrow’s back. She looks over at me, wondering if perhaps I have more treats.
Wrapping my legs around Arrow’s belly we start up the driveway towards the trail. It is dark but the distant moon through the clouds is reflecting off the light dusting of snow. A minimal but sufficient glow fills the woods and the trail is a solid path of white. Arrow walks and I recite bits and pieces of Robert Frost’s poem that I only half remember. “Whose woods these are I do not know… my little horse must think it queer to stop without a farmhouse near….” Arrow is brave and steady on this night ride. While this is only her second month under saddle she is a horse of the wilderness, not flinching or tripping.
We walk past a glowing tree, outlined in white frost. Arrow watches everything. My dog, Fiddle, runs in and out of the oaks, always close, always busy. We expect to see deer walking in the fairy light of the night but we seem to be the only three in these woods. Arrow pauses when there is a downed fir bough in the trail. This is her time to shine and I ask her to pick it up, she bites it and lifts it up to me. I throw it into the oaks, causing snow to fall in the dark. Arrow looks around for something else to fetch but we walk on as the night is too cold for lingering. When we reach the small dirt road, Arrow trots confidently. I ride as if we have always and will always be here. It is a gift, I think, a gift.
On the way home Arrow’s walk grows to that of a large horse and she sweeps across the ground. She playfully trots down a little hill and I smile, drawing her back to the walk. I am pleased that this wild animal wants to play with me rather than what might be the obvious inclination: lose the girl, head for freedom! Or at the very least, take off for family and hay back at the barn.
There is nothing better than riding a mustang. Just as Arrow’s family took care of her in the wild, now she takes care of me. Together, we are unafraid of the dark.
There is no doubt that Arrow is a wild animal and always will be. She should be with her family in Montana, grazing on this snowy moonlit night. I pretend we are back in her true home in the Pryors horse range, following a narrow trail, other horses behind us and in front of us. In the darkness, you can almost see their imagined shadows.
To Arrow’s displeasure we pass the barn and continue down the driveway. She swings her head in disapproval but I say “please Arrow, let’s keep going” and give her a squeeze. She flips her head around and pushes at my left foot, telling me in signs clearer than words that she’d rather go back to her hay. But tonight she is generous and not too fussy, so she walks on and I say thank you again.
Many native cultures believe there was a time when animals spoke, the horses, ravens, bears all talking to people, to each other. Sometimes, especially on these quiet nights, I swear they still do. Or better put, that we still understand when them when they talk.
On the flat road, I squeeze gently and Arrow trots faster and faster down the road- floating. We continue until we see unfamiliar lights. There, in the front field of the neighbor’s house is a set of Christmas trees and lighted deer sculptures. Arrow stands and looks. “People like to light everything up” I tell her, “it’s an issue with us.” Arrow watches and then moves definitely forward. She stands, watching this light show and tightens her muscles when one of the deer lifts its head mechanically and the other turns back and forth. I can see she doesn’t understand them and doesn’t trust them either. How do I explain electricity? She turns quickly and then looks again, head high. “Let’s go” I say, turning her back to the road. For a minute I let her graze nearby and Fiddle rushes back through the oaks toward us, clearly not bothered by the robotic deer.
On the way back we walk and trot back through the field. “I can’t see anything, so watch your steps” I tell Arrow. She does and never stumbles and somehow I believe that she never will. We walk and trot back on a loose rein. This evening is a gift I think again.
Royo whinnies when we approach the barn. Opening the gate, I ride until we reach the light of the barn. Just for fun, I drop my helmet for Arrow to pick up, and then a glove. She likes the challenge, retrieving time and time again. I return to the ground and remove the bareback pad, rubbing Arrow’s warm back to smooth the ruffled hair.
Another treat, a thank you hug and I leave Arrow to eat the hay.
The time that has passed is less than an hour but I vow to write this down, to attempt to capture the beauty and quiet of this night while knowing that I never could.
Later I look back at the calendar that outlines Arrow’s life. June 2007, we found the little bay filly, only a few days old, pestering everyone in Cloud’s band. Her small frame darting this way and that to convince others to play, to get up, demanding that her mother let her nurse. I called her Arrow for the large arrowhead-shaped star on her forehead and drew a photo of her in my journal. Two and half years later we failed to stop the helicopter that ran her and her family 12 miles down the mountain in 90+ degree heat. 19 days later our friend Susan Sutherland adopted her for a few hundred dollars (Royo inside but unknown). October 1st she came to Colorado Springs and I sat by her while she ate hay. On October 3rd I stood next to her, leaned into her side, rubbed her all over, and gave her the first of many hugs. Oct. 12th I slipped a halter over her face, on the 14th I led her to the round pen. October 24th Susan came to visit and we saddled her, lunged her and Susan sat on her, we walked a little, happy with Arrow’s calm curiosity. The following March the vet confirmed that Arrow’s massive hay belly was in fact a very pregnant belly and on April 12th, Royo was born. It is just the beginning of what I hope is a good life for them both.
We owe our wild horses and our wild burros a future in the wild and those in captivity we owe a life, and all the respect we can muster.