I wondered at the Rocky Mountain views, steeping downwards just a nudge from Whiskey’s hoof.
I also wondered why I couldn’t control Whiskey as much as the wild horse I rode in Utah the month before. Whiskey and the other Canadian horses had seemed placid enough, pampered even in their Banff stables. But on this two-foot wide and slippery trail, with melting snows and muddy patches through Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, Whiskey was determined to stay in front of the pack. Ears sharp, he snorted each time another horse tried to pass. And this track was strictly one-horse only!
Whiskey in Banff, Alberta, Canada
I had always thought I was afraid of horses. I grew up in Australia’s Murray Mallee but not around horses. So whenever I had a chance to be near these gorgeous beasts or go on a once-a-year trail ride I often found myself nervous. Why did they seem to come straight for me and snuffle their nose right into my chest ? I didn’t know back then, this is a sign of connection, trust and affection.
I had deliberately prepped before moving to Canada to live for a year. Ten riding lessons later I felt more skilled and determined to go on every trail ride I came across so I could tick that dream – to ride the Rocky Mountains.
View from atop Whiskey
Still, these Alberta horses were a little too edgy for me. The previous month in Utah two cowboys who camped right near the stable took a group of us out on wild horses they had broken in. The horses were so gentle and in tune with us riders. My horse wouldn’t move without my “nyk nyk”, or a gentle tug of the reign left or right. She even stopped mid-ginger meander so I could adjust my seating. And stepping down into an old creek bed, she stopped every time I asked so I could ease into the slope. Beautifully wild spirits often are so gentle in manner. As if there is no need to show off their strength all the time, because they know their strength.
So too the cowboys. Rough in looks and language but gentle toward the riders or while caressing a horse. They chatted back and forth trying to guess what color foal one of the mares would have and you could hear they loved their horses like family.
Rocky Mountain Peaks, Alberta, Canada
On the Banff trail the horses seemed competitive. Agitated. Less in tune with the rider. And cliché it may be, Whiskey was chaffing at the bit to just go.
I wondered if Whiskey was carrying me or if I was clinging on. I pulled in the reign many times and made sure to veer him right every chance so to lessen the inches to the trail’s edge. One of the group leaders told me to stop holding the reign too tight (the way I had been taught). When he was out of earshot I told the second leader this wasn’t the way I was taught how to ride. She had just arrived in Banff and had grown up with horses back home in Australia. “They never get to run free here,” she whispered. “They spend all day in the stables and only get to walk, they’re never allowed to run.”
Never allowed to run …
On hearing that, I stopped Whiskey (which meant everyone behind me had to stop) and leaned into him. I took my time. My right hand clutching the reign too tight, my left arm wrapping around his neck, my hand stroking his velvet chest and whispered some words of kindness hoping he would feel my understanding.
After all, I had felt like him most of my life. Unable to run free. Which was exactly why I was in Canada giving my heart a chance to breathe.
As we went back down the mountain and headed toward a river crossing full of slippery rocks my heart stopped again. What now ? These river rocks were huge and horse hooves do not have suction !
But I had only once choice – to give myself over to Whiskey.
He wouldn’t want to fall, so why would I ?
And we didn’t. We splashed deep into the creek but we didn’t fall.
Whiskey never stopped trying to lead the pack. He never stopped snorting when another horse tried to pass. But I felt more comfortable, knowing why he wanted to lead. And run not walk. And be completely as he was meant to be – wild as the Rockies and the rivers and the people he carried.
I now believe Whiskey sensed a whole lot more about me than I realised – that I too don’t like being forced to walk the straight and narrow.
That I prefer to lead not follow.
And that I am as wild as Whiskey.
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