The earth smells like rain, that pungent wet soil and leaf aroma that signals fall hunting season. The moisture muffles my footsteps and quiets my passage through brush bending with droopy leaves.
Our two orchards have yielded their last winter-keeper apples from high branches after lower sections are devoured by elk and a resident black bear. Yellow jackets have disappeared, but giant garden spiders are busy with intricate webs. Time slows down: the hustle of a busy summer is gone, and a slower pace measures my days.
This year, for the first time since I was young, I don’t have a horse to take me deep into wilderness areas, and that makes me profoundly lonely for all the horses and mules that have enriched my life. Lady, my last Morgan mare, and I had traveled hundreds of miles together, and there never was a more solid companion no matter what gnarly terrain or horrible weather we encountered.
It takes a long time to make a good horse. In this world of instant gratification, horsemen know miles and years make a great horse and establish a solid partnership. I remember talking to a USFS packer once when he saw I rode a Morgan.
“The best horse I’ve ever had was a Morgan mare, and I just got her perfect at 10 when she died,” he said. Having a horse—or a mule—is a life commitment, something more and more people shy away from, preferring an ATV they can use with little effort.
Some folks think horsemen are “elitist,” but I beg to differ. I never bought an expensive animal, and most of my disposable income went for their care.
A woman once remarked to my aunt I must be rich because I had a horse. My aunt replied, “No, she’s not. Her horse is the only thing she spends money on.” True words.
Horses and mules have always been a part of my hunting, and this year is going to be bittersweet as I remember them. The most comfortable animal I ever rode was a mule. Gus could collect at the canter, side pass with elegance, and had a trot so smooth and fast it felt like riding an easy chair. While others were cantering, I glided along on Gus, easily keeping up.
We bought Gus from an outfitter who was selling his string. He’d only had him a year, and, before that, Gus had been a show mule in California. The day I tried him out, the ground was covered in ice, and that mule never slipped, no matter what I asked of him.
Then there was Soldier, a big 16-hand Morgan that could do it all: ride the range rounding up and roping cattle for branding, climb vertical trails where eagles fear to fly, and be absolutely safe for any rider to climb on.
Spanish Lady, my last Morgan mare, came from a small ranch in SE Idaho as a two-year old. Like Soldier, she was sent to a friend who is a master horseman, to train on his huge eastern Oregon ranch and BLM grazing allotment. There she learned to put in long days in steep terrain.
Hustler was a solid black quarter horse and my husband’s lead horse for years. When Oregon State University disbanded their mounted police unit, we picked Hustler up at auction. After monitoring football game crowds, campus demonstrations, and handling traffic there wasn’t much that threw Hustler.
Then there was Rowdy, a huge 17-hand palamino saddle bred/thoroughbred cross. My husband bought a friend’s whole pack string just to get Rowdy, and he was our herd leader for decades.
We had others, of course, and they were all kind hearted and reliable and a joy to be around.
If you’ve never had a horse or mule in your life, you’ve missed something special. There’s a relationship that develops over time that’s hard to explain. The horse or mule learns about you just as much you learn about them. If you’ve ever had to go through a belly-deep sucking bog or have traveled over steep ground covered in shale or been unfortunate to step into a yellowjacket ground nest, the relationship you have with your animal is the key to both of you staying safe.
But it’s all the places you traveled together, the good times and the hard times, that add up to years of memories that are rich and irreplaceable. If I had to live my life over again, I’d still have a horse or mule by my side as I took to the woods on that first day of hunting season.
This year, I’m sure going to be lonely. ISI