A horse which stops dead just before a jump and thus propels its rider into a graceful arc provides a splendid excuse for general merriment.
-- Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
I t was 8 a.m. and already over 80 degrees. I cursed myself for forgetting to bring my hat. In a pathetic attempt to protect my burn-prone scalp, I had brushed my hair back into a ponytail, rather than parting it on the left as I often do. Taking refuge in a spot of shade, I watched a woman brush and saddle five horses. Another woman walked back and forth with a barrel and rake collecting copious amounts of fresh merde de cheval from the dust. I had decided, in keeping with the day's adventure, I would adopt a "frontier spirit," which included not doing anything I didn't have to do. So it was with a cavalier disregard that I scrawled my name across the bottom of a piece of paper that probably said something like, "If you fall and die, we're not responsible." Further embracing my manifesto, I waived my right to wear a helmet by marking my initials in the second square.
"Are you on the wagon?" asked a woman seated on the bench to my left. Flanking her were two boys, who I guessed were 8 and 14 years old. I thought it an odd question to ask so early in the morning, but I didn't want to be rude, so I quipped, "Of course not -- being on the wagon isn't any fun." The kids looked confused, and the woman gave me a half-cocked smile. It was then that I spotted the old-fashioned prairie wagon being pulled into the clearing by two golden Clydesdales wearing silver-studded leather harnesses. I hadn't realized riding a wagon was an option when I'd made reservations for the "horse ride to a cowboy breakfast." But I didn't let her know that. I forced a chuckle and added, "Just kidding. But, yeah, I'll be riding a horse."
It was my last day at Warner Springs Ranch. In a few hours I'd be packing up, checking out, and driving home. But first, I was going to hop on a horse, ride to a remote clearing in the wilderness, and eat a hearty breakfast prepared by cowboys, so help me Clint.
A tall man with white hair and a gray mustache approached. His striped, button-down shirt was tucked into Levi's, and his boots and hat were the cowboy kind. "I'm Alberto," he said with a smile, extending his hand.
"Barb," I said, extending mine.
"You riding a horse?"
"I hope so," I said. "I've never ridden one before. Well, once, but that was, like, in the sixth grade, and I don't remember it at all. But my legs are strong." But my legs are strong? I silently asked myself. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Alberto gestured for me to follow him to the middle of the corral, to a small wooden platform with three stairs.
Waiting patiently next to the platform was my steed -- a resplendent, russet beast of burden named Trace. I climbed the platform and accepted Alberto's offer of help. I grabbed his arm with my left hand, held the knob of the saddle with my right, and swung my leg over Trace's back. Once I was stable, Alberto grabbed Trace's reins and led us several feet away from the platform before turning back to help the teenager who had been sitting on the bench. The woman and other young boy were waiting to board the covered wagon. From my perch, I called out, "Have fun on the wagon!" Under my breath, I added, "I never did."
Alberto had instructed me to hold the reins with one hand and the knob-thing on the saddle with the other; and how to start, stop, and turn the horse -- if the animal were a go-kart, his reins would be the steering wheel, and three swift kicks to his side would be stepping on the gas pedal. Only my horse didn't seem to have a gas pedal. "This horse, he is very lazy, no?" Alberto told me. "So you have to push him a little."
Alberto jumped effortlessly onto a black beauty, which trotted out of the corral, and I loosened Trace's reins and leaned forward, the two cues for the horse to follow Alberto. I don't know what I'd been expecting. A gallop? A canter? I'd have been happy with a steady gait. While I waited for the others to mount their horses, simply straddling the hay-eating muscle machine beneath me made me feel like I was about to tap into all that strength and power. Instead, when my horse, following Alberto's mighty stallion, took its first sluggish step, I suffered the same kind of disappointment I felt when I realized that the Gods Must Be Crazy was not a movie about schizophrenic deities.
I soon became convinced that Trace wasn't lazy so much as comatose. I was 20 feet behind Alberto, but the four horses behind me were nose to ass. Alberto kept looking over his shoulder and saying, "You're hungry, no? Kick him and we get there faster." I feared abusing the majestic creature, but I didn't want to disappoint Alberto by being a bad cowgirl. I tapped Trace's side a few times with my heel and begged, "Come on, boy, you can do it. Let's go. Pick up the pace -- picante . Maybe there will be shade at the other end of this." The horse shook his head and made a drawn out sound that was half-snort, half-clearing of the throat. All of the other horses echoed Trace's sentiment with their own exasperated versions of what I could only imagine were the equine equivalent of kvetching.
The sun was relentless. My sunglasses were hot against my face, and I could see the sweat dripping down each side of Trace's mane. I was desperate for movement. With no breeze to cool our sweat, we were baking. Maybe if the horse took off at a gallop, it would create a refreshing current. "Come on , Trace!" I made a bunch of clicking noises with my mouth and then kicked, this time more than a light tap.
After taking three quick steps, Trace slowed again, almost to a stop. Then I felt something hit my leg. I turned around and was almost face to face with the kid behind me, whose horse's head was pressed against Trace's haunch. "What was that?" I asked him. He shrugged and said he hadn't seen anything.
A few minutes later, I leaned forward in the saddle, pressed my hand against Trace's neck, and whispered in his ear, "All right, you, let's get moving now . This is ridiculous." I bounced my heel against the horse, experimenting with different areas -- further forward, further back, right in the middle. Then it happened again, only this time I saw it: Trace's tail flew up and slapped me on the thigh as though he were trying to shoo me off like an insect . I swung around in the saddle. "Did you see it that time? Did this horse just hit me with his tail?" The kid was giggling, nodding. Yeah, he'd seen it.
We finally arrived at the clearing where I was relieved to find a few trees offering shade. The rigid saddle had left my butt sore, forcing me to waddle to the breakfast table. After a plate of eggs and sausage links and a cup of syrupy coffee, it was time to go. I looked at the woman, now sitting on a cushion in the cabana-like comfort of her canvas-covered wagon. And then I looked at Trace. With a sigh, I walked toward the horse, where Alberto was waiting for me, his hand outstretched.