One of the best summers I can remember was the summer I was old enough to go to Campfire camp for a whole week, because that meant a whole week of riding.
Camp Kotami was near Foxton, Colorado, located at a cool 6,500 feet in the Rocky Mountains. During my week at camp, we went on a packed overnight trip with the horses, went on a daylong bareback ride up a steep mountain trail, and we even held a wild Horse Olympics–everything from speed saddling to egg-in-spoon mounted races.
Not one girl wore a helmet. Most of us didn’t even remember to wear our hats against the high-altitude sun. We didn’t have sunglasses or wear sunscreen. Those of us who didn’t have boots rode in our sneakers. The only concession we made to “safety” when we were riding was to wear jeans instead of shorts.
I still remember watching the girls crawling under the horses during the speed saddling contest–slapping the stirrups down, hauling on the girths like you’d hoist a heavy bag of laundry onto your shoulder. The horses didn’t rear, bolt, spook, bite, or kick. Some of us had trouble staying on during the bareback trip, particularly at the trot, and more than a few girls had to grab their horses around the neck in order to keep from falling off.
I got one of the larger mares that was a little harder to handle, since I was the tallest and strongest girl in our group. Sea Jay was a lovely dark-gray dappled mare, and she was used to bossing girls of all ages and sizes around. If I had to wait too long to put her back in the stable, she would jam her nose into my crotch or butt (whichever happened to be turned toward her at the time) and lift me right off my feet. She would bloat like a pufferfish during saddling and would clamp her lips against the bit. She was also buddy-sour and took off with me once when we fell too far behind during a trail ride (I’d had to stop to tighten the cinch for about the 300th time). I was so excited by the feeling of speed and her galloping underneath me that I never tried to slow her down.
Not once did it occur to me to be afraid of falling off.
On our overnight packing trip, we had permission to stay on someone else’s property (adjacent to the camp). Apparently we weren’t warned beforehand that the landowner had a bunch of horses grazing that land. I still remember sitting on Sea Jay as about twenty horses galloped up and how it took about all my arm strength to hold her in. That was the only time I remember our counselors getting nervous that whole week. Since we were so close to our campsite, they ordered all of us to get off and walk–and the pastured horses followed along, nickering and whinnying to our crew.
After unloading and unsaddling, we just turned out batch loose to run with the pastured horses–something that astounds me now. I don’t know if the horses were usually all were pastured together or what, but apparently there were no worries about whether or not they would get along…or whether we would be able to catch our mounts the next day.
That night was filled with the usual primitive entertainments–marshmallow and hot-dog burning, warm cans of orange and grape pop, and the pit with a flat rock and a roll of toilet paper out of sight from camp that some of us couldn’t bring ourselves to use.
That night was the night I finally got the hang of performing an industrial-strength finger whistle after being coached by a friend–a skill I still use to this day to whistle my own horses in from pasture.
But my best memory of that whole trip was waking up at first light during the campout. It was cloudy, a relative novelty for the central Rockies in July. Nobody else was awake, and all the horses (our mounts and the pastured horses) were quietly grazing right next to camp. A few of the younger horses, including a black filly with a comically heavy wig-like forelock, were sniffing every backpack and saddle as they wandered further into camp between the sleeping girls. I could see Sea Jay hanging back with the older horses, intent on grazing but keeping a weather eye on the young horses.
I wanted to wake up my friend next to me so she could share the moment–but at the same time, I didn’t want to wake her. As kids, we don’t think much beyond what’s going to happen to us in the next five minutes, but I think every childhood has a few moments where we can sense time eddying at our feet. Lying there in my damp sleeping bag that gray morning, watching the young horses pick their way through the sleeping girls, I knew it was going to be a sight I remembered the rest of my life.
And again, not once did I worry about the horses stepping on someone. I didn’t worry that one of the girls was going to move suddenly in her sleep and spook one of the horses. If I were witness to a similar scene today–as a mother, as an uptight adult who now tends to see Imminent Danger before anything else–well, I don’t know that I would even see curious young horses. Maybe all I would see would be trouble waiting to happen.
When I shifted my weight up on my elbows a little further in my sleeping bag, the black filly’s head popped up. When she saw me watching her, she carefully turned around and walked back to the posse, followed by the other young horses. The group began moving away from camp at a sedate pace, grazing all the way.
By the time someone else woke up, all the horses had vanished into the woods. I can’t remember if we had trouble catching them that morning, although I’m betting we did.
Older riders talk a lot about fear. We make jokes about how the ground isn’t getting any softer, and we accumulate more horror stories than we’d like (although we try not to) of injuries others have suffered from working with horses.
But sometimes I wonder if what we’re really afraid of isn’t physical injury–it’s that we’re afraid we’ll never be able to get back to that magical state we took for granted when we were kids–the place where we just simply just trust our horses.