When I told my sister, Sande, that we were planning to come for a visit to her ranch in Salmon, Idaho, she was excited at the prospect of taking us along on one of the backcountry horseback riding excursions that are her favorite recreation. Although Lee and I look forward to any opportunity to get into the mountains, we weren’t too sure we wanted to do it on horseback. But I was willing to give it a try and told her to go ahead and plan the outing.
My brother, Clint, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, is also enthusiastic about riding so he drove over to Salmon to join us. Sande has a friend, Arnie, who was willing to loan us some horses and suggested a trail that he thought we would all enjoy. With lunches packed, saddles and gear assembled and horses loaded in the trailers, the five of us set off for the mountains.
After miles of rattling and jolting over a rough forest road we finally got to the trailhead. We unloaded 3 horses from Arnie’s trailer and 2 horses from Sande’s. I would be riding Sugar (sounded sweet), Lee would be riding Penny and I can’t remember the name of Arnie’s horse or the one Clint would be riding. They all looked friendly and Arnie said Sugar and Penny would be gentle enough for us two New Mexico greenhorns.
Since this was going to be a trail ride, single file, one horse plodding along behind another, I had envisioned that I wouldn’t need to do anything except sit in the saddle and let the horse carry me up the mountain. As best I can remember, the extent of my experience with horses was as a kid riding bareback on a pony we owned. I can’t remember ever having sat high off the ground in a saddle on the back of a huge animal like this that was expecting me to manipulate a leather strap laying on it’s neck to tell it where I wanted it to go.
I barely got myself in the saddle before Sugar started heading off the trail into the woods. Clint hollered at me that I was supposed to be using the reins, but I hadn’t even yet figured out where they were. I fumbled around for them and got the horse headed in the right direction behind Clint’s horse. I was not prepared for the roughness of the trail and was soon convinced that Sugar was determined to step on the biggest, slipperiest rocks she could find. My feet were wedged into the stirrups, twisting my knees into a very uncomfortable position. I was gripping the saddlehorn in both hands, squeezing tight in the saddle with my legs and bracing my feet in the stirrups. But as the horse lurched up the steep, rocky trail I was sure that any minute I would slide off her back or worse yet the horse would slide off the edge of the cliff whenever we had to navigate a narrow ledge.
After about half an hour my knees were aching so badly that I gave up on using the stirrups and just let my feet dangle free. Then I felt even less secure on the slippery saddle as the trail got steeper and the horse stumbled over the rocks. I didn’t know how long we’d been riding or how much further we had to go but I was just about ready to ask Clint if we could stop for a minute so I could get off and use the bathroom. Suddenly, Sugar lurched to the left and smashed my leg up against a tree. That was it. I got off the horse, did my business in the trees and said that I would walk the rest of the way up.
Arnie was kind enough to lead my horse and I was finally free to make my way using my own two feet. As it turned out there was less than a mile to our destination. It was steep going and I was huffing and puffing to keep up with Clint’s horse but it was worth it to be on solid ground.
We had a relaxing lunch next to Alan Lake and I mentally prepared myself for the ride back down. But then Arnie said he would walk down and Lee decided to do the same. So 3 of us walked and 2 rode. Walking down, the trail didn’t seem as rocky or steep as it had when I was on the horse. It turns out that the trail up to the lake was 4 miles with 2000 feet of elevation gain. It would have made a nice day hike, if you ask me. I think as long as I’m able to walk, I will be hiking up trails, not horseback riding.