On Thursday morning of our trip, we had a lovely breakfast of English muffins spread with Lemon Whipped Honey from Honeyville, perfectly fried eggs, and hot coffee. It was delectable.
Then we headed out for what I think was the highlight of our trip.
Just across Highway 550 from Purgatory Ski Resort is Buck's Livery. We were going to ride horses!
I had not ridden a horse since I was about 3. I obviously have no memory of that ride, although I have seen pictures testifying to it happening. So, as far as I'm concerned this was my first actual time to ride a horse, and Scott hadn't ridden since he was about 10.
I have always loved horses. Growing up in Ignacio, our neighbors had horses, and I would go pet Gary's horses and feed the foals sugar cubes. My favorite colt was named Thunder. I went to see him every day, and then went home and read every horse book I could get my hands on: Black Beauty, Black Stallion ( I went through the entire series at least twice), all of the Misty of Chincoteague prequels and sequels, My Friend Flicka, the Felicity books in the American Girls series, The Horse Whisperer, all of the Ralph Moody books, etc. I was REALLY into horses! But I never got to own or ride one.
So this was a pretty momentous occasion!
We pulled up to Buck's Livery, and saw that we were the only customers on this beautiful sunny Colorado morning.
We met our guide, Henry, a baby-faced young cowboy who could have been anywhere in his 20's, and had an authentic bow-legged cowboy walk, leather coat, chaps, boots, hat, the whole nine yards. I knew he was the real deal, and that we had come to the right place. We signed up for the 2-hour ride, which ended up being the perfect amount of time; turns out I couldn't have taken 4 hours in the saddle....even at 2 hours, my bottom and legs were sore for a couple of days later!
Riding horses is not as easy as it looks. I mean, I knew it took skill. I had read all those books, mind you, and I know a little about what goes into training a horse and the connection that forms between rider and steed. But I admit I was a little surprised when we walked into the corral and Henry recommended that I ride a VERY large bay. Henry explained that he was half Clydesdale! That pleased me. Clydesdales are so awesome, and his hoofs were indeed shaggy and oversized. He towered over me, and I had to get up on a log bench they had strategically placed (for short riders, such as myself) to mount him. But, I knew I had to get on from the horse's left side, so I stuck my foot into the left stirrup, and clumsily swung myself up into the saddle.
Not the most graceful sliding into a saddle ever, but there I was: riding a horse!
His name was Virgil, and we got to be good friends on our little adventure that day.
Henry helped Scott mount his horse, a paint named Chief, then the cowboy jumped into his saddle (without even standing on the log bench, haha), told his blue roan, Indigo, to "giddap", and off we went.
Now, I hadn't really known what to expect. I had thought maybe our horses would be tethered together in a single-file line, and we'd just sit there, following Henry, and not really guiding our horses. But he informed us that we were totally in charge of our horses, showed us how to steer left and right with both reins in one hand, to pull up sharply and say "whoa" if we needed to stop, and to kick our heels in hard if we wanted to speed them up.
And with that 1 minute crash course in horseback riding, off we went!
I felt like my 10-year-old self, filled with glee and contentment as this huge, powerful animal plodded down the first hill onto the trail.
I was riding a horse!!!
Here is my first picture with Virgil. I took almost all of these while in the saddle, but he was a very patient and sweet horse, and put up with me when I kept pulling on his reins and stopping him, and stood very still for me to document the journey.
The views from Virgil's back were incredible. I was SO glad I had lugged my camera with the very heavy 15-30mm lens along with me. It bounced along on my back with every step he took, but I didn't mind.
Henry took us on what must have been about a 12 mile loop, down into a valley where we saw Boyce Lake.
We wound between pines, blue spruces, and aspens, and I got a shot of Engineer Mountain, and of Scott on Chief.
Now Chief was quite the amusing horse. I was pretty interested to learn each horse's personality, because I know they're as diverse as humans in their preferences, fears, and quirks. Henry said Chief was older than the other horses, although now I can't remember exactly how old....maybe close to 20 years. But, kind of like an old man, he was rather set in his ways, and one of his 'ways' was to try to grab mouthfuls of food every chance he got!
Henry had said the horses had already eaten that morning—twice!—and not to let them eat along the way or we'd never get anywhere. But ol' Chief had other plans. Scott said they'd be going along, then suddenly the horse's head would drop and he'd be chomping on a young aspen branch (which I didn't know horses ate!) or leaves from a passing bush. Scott had to yank on his reins many times to get him to stop eating, then kick him in the flank to encourage him to move along. One time Chief was coming down a steep, rocky hill, and nearly threw Scott headlong when he decided to nab a tasty leaf and didn't look where he was going!
"C'mon, Chief! Giddap! Get along!", Henry cajoled affectionately. But Chief didn't seem to hear, or if he did, he didn't care. He continued to sneak bites the entire ride, haha!
Virgil was much more cooperative. If we slowed down or stopped, sure, he'd have a bite of whatever was nearby. There was one particular bush that must have been just delicious, because I had a hard time pulling him away from it! But for the most part, he just kept walking along, and went where I asked.
One time, coming down a long, rocky hill surrounded on both sides by thick forest and underbrush, Virgil came to a complete stop. I happened to be in the lead at that point, and wasn't sure why he was stopping, because there wasn't any food close to him, and I hadn't pulled back on the reins. His ears twitched to our right, and he began sniffing the air, his big muzzle bobbing up and down in the breeze. Henry came up alongside me, looking to the right where Virgil and I were looking.
"I think there might be a mountain lion in that thick brush over there." he said, nodding towards the right side of the trail. "I saw some mountain lion scat back at the top of the hill, and the horses seem to smell something. The cats don't come out much during the day. They sleep in the shade, in places like that, and then hunt at night."
I tried to sound casual as I asked if it was a problem.
"Nah!" Henry snorted. "They would never bother horses this big."
I hoped he was right, and while I felt fairly safe up on my big Virgil, and knew he could run fast if necessary, I was relieved when he stopped sniffing the air, and we moved on. I cast a last glance over my shoulder, but saw nothing. Thankfully.
We went up and down small mountains, and back and forth on switchbacks up the bigger ones. We even went through this lovely aspen grove, much to my delight.
I love aspens. Like, a lot. I even gave my daughter the name Aspen as her middle name, paying homage to my home state and favorite tree. These weren't brilliant gold yet—we were a few weeks too early—but there's always something magical about an aspen grove. The tall, thin white trunks with their dark black marks, and of course the perfectly-shaped leaves that rustle at the slightest breeze and make that awesome whispering sound.
We climbed out of the valley of aspens and made our way steadily up the side of the mountain, zigzagging back and forth. The strength of the horse's muscles underneath me was incredible. He just walked right up those steep inclines, picking his way around loose stones, like it was nothing. At Henry's instruction, I leaned forward in the saddle when we went uphill, and leaned back when we rode downhill.
It was such a cool experience! The creaking of the leather saddle, the feel of the woven leather pommel in my hand, the warm smell of the horse's back, and the swaying motion of each step were all exactly like what I had read.
The only thing that wasn't what I was expecting was the discomfort I pretty quickly started to feel in my bottom and knees! Virgil was a very large horse, and I have short legs that were splayed out over his broad back. Then my feet had to go into the stirrups, which created an unpleasant angle for my knees. I soon understood why cowboys have that distinctive walk! And the saddle was harder than you might think, with a lot of pressure pushing on the sitting bones. I'm sure a different saddle made for someone my size would have helped, but either way, I think horseback riding forces your body into some positioning that isn't exactly natural!
I forgot about all that when we came to this overlook, though.
"Well folks, I sure do apologize for this view!" Henry said sarcastically.
He dismounted and led our horses by their reins to the edge, which I appreciated. (I'm sure Virgil wouldn't have gone over the cliff..... but still.)
Isn't this view amazing?!!
We stayed up there looking at the view for several minutes. Beauty that magnificent takes my brain some time to process as I take it all in! Plus..... I may have lingered a little longer because I needed to give my legs and rear a break from that saddle!
On the way back to the start of the trail, Henry continued to chat with us, answering our questions about horses, how long he had been doing guided rides, hunting, the uses of different plants according to Indian tradition (evidently if you have a fever, scraping the bark off of an aspen and making it into a tea is as effective as taking aspirin!), and even looking at tree trunks to find bear sign, as shown in the photo below.
I was glad we didn't see any actual bears. Or mountain lions. Only coyotes, which I can handle!
We finally made our way back to the corral, and the horses didn't need any guiding to find the water tanks! They thirstily gulped down water for a couple of minutes.
A nearby sign said "Don't forget to tip yer horse and kiss yer guide!". We chose to do the opposite, haha. I was kind of sad to say goodbye to Virgil, but we had made some amazing memories!
Thanks for reading! For the final installment in this series of blogs, I will share pictures of the friends and family we got to visit in the CO-NM area.
Related posts on my first trip back to my hometown: