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June 26, 2015. On Horses and Sled Dogs, by Debbie Clarke Moderow

26 Jun 2015, by Debbie Moderow in Uncategorized

Before sled dogs came into my life there were horses. They weren’t mine; they never lived in my backyard like our huskies do. But they mattered. With enormous hearts for the trail and the people who rode them, they were the dude horses of the CM Ranch in Dubois, Wyoming. They had names like Bowie, Snickers, Cactus, and Redwing. I rode them during visits to the ranch, between 1968 and 1990. Some summers I stayed as a guest at the ranch for a few weeks; other seasons I worked there and rode every day for three months. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those horses changed my life.

I was thirteen years old when my parents first took me west to the CM Ranch. At the time I lived for skiing slalom courses in Vermont during winter, and for summertime tennis matches at our Connecticut country club. I dreamt that the sandy-haired boy who excelled at both tennis and ski racing would notice me. When Mom and Dad announced we’d go to far off Wyoming and ride horses for two weeks, I was not particularly enthusiastic.

That trip to Wyoming changed me. In a matter of days, the wide western sky claimed my imagination; the cowboys—their pointed boots and jangling spurs—teased my curiosity. But all of that was secondary to the horses. One of those wild-eyed beauties who grazed outside our cabin at night took me up and over the high ridge above the CM valley, where we loped over gentle hills dotted with sagebrush. Together we moved along fence lines that stretched as far as I could see. Every so often we stopped and opened a gate, passing from one wild tract of land to another. The landscape was massive and varied, with badlands in one direction and wooded alpine peaks in the other. “This is horse country,” my father told me with reverence. I believed him.

I loved those first days in the saddle, getting acquainted with the rhyme and rhythm of my palomino horse, Bowie. His sure-footed swagger, the swish of his tail, and his occasional whinny. I was surprised the first time he lowered his head at the edge of the Torrey Creek to sip clear mountain water like he was drinking through a straw. In the beginning, I clung to the saddle horn until my hands blistered, but after a while I learned to relax into Bowie’s rocking cadence and beyond. Eventually I surrendered to his powerful pounding reach, as we galloped along Jakey’s Fork valley that rose toward the snowcapped peaks of Union Pass, high on North America’s continental divide.

As my confidence increased on the back of my horse and I dared to look around, the rewards were countless. One morning Bowie and I slipped through the shade of cottonwoods, toward my first sighting of an endangered species: a cluster of Big Horn rams grazing. On an all-day ride a coyote shadowed us for more than an hour. On a different trail we passed an osprey nesting; as we trotted across an irrigated meadow, a golden eagle soared a lazy circle overhead. To spend my days with Bowie witnessing such wildness meant accessing a mysterious topography, filled with surprise.

Many have written about the connection between humans and their horses and dogs. In her book Deep Play, Diane Ackerman writes about the discoveries that come from our animal interactions. To discover, she writes, “means to uncover something that’s hidden from view. But what really happens is a change in the viewer.”

Oh how I changed. When I returned home to Connecticut from that first visit to the CM, my previously fulfilling suburban life had lost its appeal. Even the ski trails of Vermont failed to satisfy my newfound adventurous spirit. Ten years later, soon after college graduation, I moved to Wyoming. Within a year I’d met my husband on a mountain climbing expedition and relocated even further north and west to Alaska.

 

Now it’s June 2015 and all that is history. This month, in honor of my sixtieth birthday, my daughter Hannah surprised me by announcing we would go on a journey, back to the CM Ranch. Last week, for the first time in twenty-five years, I returned to that transformative place of my youth. For the first time in several decades, I hoisted my self onto the back of a horse.

To put one boot in a stirrup and fling my self up and over the saddle is no longer a graceful maneuver. These days I’m far more of a dog person than a wannabe cowgirl. My knees have weathered thousands of miles standing on the runners of my dog sled; harnesses, gang lines, kibble, beef, and mukluks are far more familiar than latigos, bridles, alfalfa, and horse shoes. But there I was astride a gentle paint horse named Tonto, loping behind my grown daughter across sage hills toward the snowfields on Union Pass. In the company of our horses, Hannah and I relished the crisp mountain air that glistens in the low morning light. We inhaled the sweet musky scent of horse sweat and leather and sage. During one afternoon ride we delighted in the sight of crimson Indian paintbrush blooming underfoot and a pair of red tailed hawks spiraling overhead. Even the down valley breeze that mixed with the rumble of the creek still carried surprise, like the great blue heron that flapped low with legs outstretched as we walked our horses alongside the towering cottonwoods near the place where the Bighorn sheep used to graze.

Each day last week I grew more familiar with Tonto—his twitchy ears, the feel of his heartbeat, and the way he holds his head. I rediscovered the incomprehensible bond between rider and horse, and reclaimed the old views that had changed me long ago. Somewhere on the trail between the ranch and the sandstone spires of the badlands, I recognized that the dude horses of the west, with all of their earnest splendor, had long ago changed the course of my life.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize the obvious and give credit where it is due: my life with Alaskan huskies really began with a horse. In my memoir, I describe getting to know our first sled dog.

I look back at our first year together as a season of mutual discovery. Salt had an uncanny ability to read my mood, and I did my best to interpret his desires. The scratch of his paw on my knee and his woof at the door insisted that the mountain air was waiting. If we ventured there together, we wouldn’t miss out. We simply had to go.

The meaning of these words could apply just as well to my getting acquainted with Bowie.

Whether I’m responding to wags, howls, or ears that heighten at the turn of the dog sledding trail—or I’m riding atop Bowie or Tonto in and out of the shade of cottonwoods—the connection to my traveling partners has always engaged and sustained me. Perhaps it’s all about the mystery that we share.

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