I really don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, but I make my best case to Noah, who is gravely skeptical about the adventure. Soon the four of us stand in the middle of a dusty corral surrounded by the snow-covered Tetons and a herd of whinnying horses, most of them with their noses in a feed trough.
“This here is Minnie Pearl,” says the man with the scuffed boots and the faded cowboy hat, gesturing to a brown horse with a ragged tail, a smear of dried mud on her hindquarters. I place my left hiking boot in the stirrup and with a grunt, swing myself into the saddle.
I’ve only been on a horse one other time in my life, as a Girl Scout at horseback riding camp. That was 30 years ago. Suddenly, for all my enthusiastic talk about “how fun it will be,” almost-42 seems a little old for this kind of thing. Minnie Pearl is higher than I imagined, now that I’m sitting on her back. I grip the saddle horn with both hands, reins clenched in my fingers, and I feel scared. Especially when I see my kids perched straight-backed and solemn on their horses. “You okay ?” Cole, our guide, asks, turning to Noah, who follows on ‘Lil Blue behind him. “You look terrified.”
Noah’s been terrified of this adventure all along, but now even Rowan, who’s listing slightly to the left in ‘Lil Paint’s saddle, is strangely quiet, and my heart thumps wildly as we approach the muddy creek, our horses creeping along the trail in single file.
Only Brad seems unruffled, sitting as calm and tall as Sir Lancelot, reins held lightly in his right hand, left hand resting on his thigh. How in the world is he managing to look so regal, while I’m galumphing along like a flummoxed peasant? Is it because he’s on a stately stallion while I’ve got a dowdy brown mare? Minnie Pearl whips her head away from ‘Lil Paint’s swishing tail and I screech, grabbing a fistful of mane in my hand.
Rowan’s horse balks at the edge of the bank – perhaps he doesn’t like to get his feet wet? – but finally, after much snapping of reins and “giddyupping,” we make it across the spring-swollen creek and enter a meadow of sage and aspen.
I relax a bit, despite the fact that a bone I’d long forgotten even exists suddenly rears out of post labor and delivery dormancy. As I shift up and down in the saddle, futilely trying to get comfortable, I can see from the slope of his shoulders that Noah has begun to enjoy himself up ahead. We all laugh as Jughead, Brad’s stallion, strips tender leaves from branches with one clamp of his giant teeth and then neighs shrilly, startling us and making me shriek again. I’m sure our guide, a real cowboy from Waco, must feel disdain for tourists like me, with my screeches and nervous giggles. Up ahead, Cole fiddles with something, cowboy hat bent low. I assume he’s texting, until I see him spit a brown stream of tobacco into the woods.
We’re headed back now, poised to cross the creek downstream, but as the horses splash in, one after the other, I realize in a panic that the river runs much deeper and faster at this spot. Frigid water sloshes over my right boot, soaking my jeans halfway up my shin, and I feel Minnie Pearl strain against the current, her big body pushed sideways, neck stretched out long.
It’s over in just a few seconds, and then we’re on a sandy spit, horses panting, tails dripping. Cole dismounts, saunters over to Rowan and adjusts his saddle and stirrups. “Water’s running pretty good, ain’t it?” he observes, spitting another brown stream onto the river rocks. I don’t like the fact that our seasoned cowboy seems mildly impressed with the creek. It makes me wonder if we were in any actual danger, especially Rowan, clinging to the neck of his horse.
“We’re you scared?” I ask Rowan later. The horses are back at the trough, and we walk with rubbery legs to the mini-van. “Not really,” he answers. “I could tell ‘Lil Paint knew what to do, so I didn’t need to do anything except hold on.”
I think about that simple statement as we rumble over the dirt road back to our cabin, a wake of dust hanging like a gauzy veil behind us. Slogging through a raging torrent, plunging into a deep valley, trudging across the barren wilderness…sometimes it’s all we can do to hold on, gripping the reins, trusting that someone leads, someone who knows exactly what to do.
Sometimes, it seems, holding on for dear life is the smartest move of all.
Have you ever felt like you were holding on for dear life…on a horse or otherwise?