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Know the West

Ranch Diaries: Trusting your horse on ice and in quicksand

On the ranch, horses help us through bad weather and barbed wire mishaps on a regular basis.


Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first two years of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

Every time I see our horses making the trek in from their pasture to the water tank near the corrals, I’m in awe that I get to live in a way where they are an integral part of our ranching existence. To me, they’re not just romantic Western icons: they’ve shaped way that I experience the West. On horseback, I learned to put the tracking skills I was taught as a child to wider use. From my saddle, I’ve come across moose and black bear, lightening-struck Angus bulls and elk calves hidden under tree boughs; I have to trust my horse to be sensible no matter what we encounter. Once, while out checking cattle, Sam and I stopped for a lunch of sardines and crackers and a wolf came within 20 yards of our hobbled horses. They never scented him.


When I stepped off our gelding Raven last fall and rolled my ankle, I remembered how much I have to trust these giant creatures to help me do what I need to get done. Urging my horse into a gallop over rocks, windfalls, and gopher holes to get around a rebellious cow, I have to believe that he wants to stay upright as much as I do. My body has learned to feel how my horse moves beneath me, and it follows instinctively now if my horse spooks sideways or jumps a cactus.

Trust. After spending 16 years with horses, from arenas to wilderness, that’s what I’ve learned. A quote I once read said something about throwing your heart over the jump before following with your horse. I’d say that applies to the kinds of situations I find myself in out on the ranch, navigating old barbed wire fences, steep rocky slopes, and unpredictable weather horseback.

Once I made the foolish error of riding through a stock pond to get to the other side. Halfway through, I realized the bottom was like quicksand. My horse struggled and plunged. I sat helpless as he forced his way through the sludge to the other side. There was only a strip of us not covered in thick grey mud, but we’d made it, thanks his steady mind and perseverance. Years ago in Montana, I was riding too fast for wet conditions and slid through a barbed wire gate. My horse stood quietly as I climbed shakily to the ground and unwound the broken fence and wire from his body. Had he panicked, both of us might not have made it. And I’ll never forget the way my body went motionless as I discovered the hill I was riding a Minnesota neighbor’s horse down was slick with ice, or fail to recall the way his shod hooves sounded as he scrambled for traction.

This dance, this intuitive motion, is why I like using horses to work cattle. As prey animals themselves, many horses understand the reasons cattle act in certain ways, their bodies instinctively moving in reaction to a cow. Here again comes the trust factor: It’s difficult but necessary to simultaneously assure the horse that you’re in control, while allowing him to think for himself.

With horses, there is no room for fear. They continue to teach me to let go of preconceived ideas, old habits and self-doubt. They are best at feeling and experiencing life exactly in the moment. I learn to stay observant of my surroundings, watching their ears prick as they register a sound, smell or sight. When I startle as a covey of quail explodes underneath my gelding’s legs, he never flinches, all business.

Yet freed of tack and his job, he rolls in the sand, shakes and trots out to reclaim that other aspect of himself, the self that bucks and farts and strikes out and wheels like his wild cousin. Be both, he tells me, equal parts careful and free.