hooves on woodsy trailback of a good saddle horsepeaceful morning ride
My first real horseback ride was as a young girl. And I don’t mean a ride at the county fair on a horse that was tethered to a merry-go-round-type contraption, but a wild trail ride, free and frightfully fun!
On a family vacation to California in the late 1960s, my sister Bev took us to Yosemite National Park in a Fleetwood Tioga RV. There we rode slow-paced mules on the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Fall. On another day we rode high-spirited horses on the John Muir Trail to the top of Nevada Fall. Almost entirely uphill, the trails were wet, rocky, slippery, and narrow, but the mules and the horses were sure-footed and knew the way. Only one, Bev’s horse named Raspus, was a rambunctious rascal. He had a bit of an attitude problem, and Bev’s conversations with him were anything but invisible.
Soaked by the spray of the large, powerful and turbulent falls, we had close-up views of rainbows in the mists. The trails offered majestic panoramas of the high granite summits and open meadows across Yosemite Valley, with spectacular scenery along the Merced River. Bev knew the names of the highest peaks and almost every pine tree, shrub, wildflower, mammal, and bird in the area. She showed me how to read tree bark and taught me how to use a naturalist’s key to identify numerous birds and an unbelievable number of wildflowers.
On the trails, we spotted mule deer browsing in bitterbrush and moving in a most surprising way with their hopping, stiff-legged gait. I will always remember three breathtaking spectacles: a valley-floor deer family framed by the two granite monoliths El Capitan and Half Dome, a pair of spotted fawns hiding with a doe, and a lone coyote crossing the road, pausing and looking back at us from the other side. Bev’s greatest gift to me was to make my small-town world bigger, and we were fortunate to visit Yosemite when the park’s carrying capacity could handle the large international crowds.
Over a decade later, in my 20s, I returned to Yosemite as a tent camper and took a long hike on one of the pack mule trails. Access to Merced River was restricted, and due to sediment accumulation Mirror Lake was close to disappearing, looking more like a pond than a lake. The next day, I went on a guided horseback ride on the waterfall trails. As happy hooves kicked up rocks and sent them tumbling down high cliffs, I realized I had lost some of my childhood daring since my first rides up those steep, narrow trails.
Over the years, I’ve taken both English and Western riding lessons, much preferring Western because it appeals to my childhood fascination with cowboy westerns on television—Bonanza, Daniel Boone, Big Valley, Rawhide, The Rifleman, and Wagon Train. Gleeful shouts of “Yee-haw! Giddy-up! Whoa! Good horse!” were part of the lore of Western horseback riding, not the flavor of English riding. Besides, this girl will always prefer a plaid flannel shirt, sweatshirt, blue jeans, and bandana over English breeches, show coats, and over-the-calf Peddie socks.
When first learning to trail ride as an adult, I felt awkward and unbalanced, unable to make all my body parts do all the things they were supposed to do at the same time. So, I was given a sidewalker, someone who walked alongside me until I was competent to ride on my own. Their support ranged from assisting me in grooming and tacking the horse, to leading the horse from the stall, keeping the horse calm and quiet, adjusting the stirrups, mounting the horse, holding my ankles in place, and coaching me through the leader’s instructions. From the get-go, the sidewalker reserved the right to send me “back to the barn” if I posed a threat to the horses or other riders with my attitude or actions. Fortunately, I had enough good old-fashioned horse sense to get by.
At the end of a ride, the sidewalker would assist me with the dismount, and then help me untack and cool down the horse, lead the horse back to the barn, and sweep up the mess. The sidewalker kindly celebrated my pride of a job well done.
When the day came for me to lead a horse from the stall on my own, the horse I had been training with was not healthy. So, I was given Crazy Horse to ride and was warned of his past antics, bad attitude, laziness, and tendency to take a lot of leg. I turned my body to face Crazy Horse and then put one hand on each side of the halter. Speaking softly to the magnificent animal, I felt a connection. Walking backwards, I guided him slowly and easily out of the barn and into the arena. What a magical experience that was. I was not afraid. I grew to love that horse. He would nicker to me when he saw me, come up to me in the pasture, and lick my hands after I gave him a treat. I trusted him, he trusted me, and I knew he would never hurt me.
One day the barn manager called to tell me Crazy Horse was colicking, and it was severe. I rushed to the barn to help watch him, walk him, and do whatever I could to help. When the veterinarian said there was nothing else that could be done for Crazy Horse, I sat with him in his stall, they put him to sleep, and he died.
That night with Crazy Horse reminded me of when, as a teenager in Ohio, I was called out to a farm by the country veterinarian for whom I was volunteering, because a mare was probably going to give birth to a foal sometime in the night. Dad drove me out to the farm so I wouldn’t miss it. The experience was amazing, awe-inspiring, and thrilling. I watched with wonder as the vet helped the mare, who was in distress, get through the birth. The universe gifted the mare and the farmer with the miracle of a healthy little foal. It made me want to be a large-animal country veterinarian. So did the book All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot.
Alas, though, the vet told me at the end of my service that season, “Cheryl, I know you love the animals, and you’ve been a big help to me. But you’ll never be a large-animal vet. You’re not strong enough and your arms aren’t long enough. You wouldn’t have been able to save that foal, and the mare would have broken your arm.” I believed him, and that was the end of that. I graduated from high school and set off to the Ohio State University without a dream or a plan, aimless and vulnerable.
Apart from a few exceptions—like taking a Russian literature class from a professor who had escaped Czechoslovakia, eating frozen ice cream cones on the Quad with Carole (my twin sister), and my roommate sneaking me into a basketball game to play a tenor horn with the pep band—I didn’t have a happy experience at Ohio State. It was too big, and I was too unformed and could not explain all the uneasiness within me. Carole had such a glorious enthusiasm for everything, her strength and energy budding and bursting to be a Buckeye. I viewed her with mingled fascination, admiration, and envy. She “sidewalked” me through Calculus and other emergencies, but the folds of my heart and inspiration lay hidden or cast aside, and secrets haunted me. Like the Russian novels and poems I studied, life both fascinated and disturbed me. And like Yuri Zhivago, I struggled to find my place, my profession, my voice, and my true self. I wanted to go far away.
When I left Ohio State after two years and took a break from college for a couple months, I stayed with my sister Bev and her partner in Alta Loma, California, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. She took me for a drive one day in a yellow Datsun pickup truck. I remember looking down from the Interstate overpass onto a wooded grassy field full of horses and feeling strangely hopeful for the first time in a long time. My exclamation was of rapt attention, delight, and curiosity. Bev said that I was looking at part of a small university campus where they raised purebred Arabian horses. Then she said the magic words, “I’ll take you there.”
It was California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, part of the state university system and the site of a former horse ranch. I fell in love with the campus and the Arabian horses. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation actually deeded the horse ranch to the California State University system in 1949 for use as a university campus with the provisions that the property be used for education, the Arabian horse herd be cared for, and the Sunday public horse shows be maintained.
Cal Poly’s lush environment and small campus, so close to where I was staying with my sister, inspired me to go back to school. My studies there at the start were a mix of subjects just to get me interested in school again—get me back in the saddle, if you will. What I most enjoyed was working at the horse stables and with the campus groundskeepers—helping to clean the stables, groom the horses, and care for the avocado groves and rose gardens on campus. Cal Poly practiced sustainable landscaping, with all gardens, turf, and trees maintained by students as part of their educational program. After a couple hours of transplanting trees, I would sit on a bench in one of the rose gardens and write Mom and Dad a letter, sharing details of my day and personal reflections. On Sundays I attended the horse shows and hung out in the stables.
The good-natured Arabian horses I had spied from the overpass changed my life, maybe even saved it. Their intelligence and curiosity, their ability to relate to me, and their loving personality were remarkable. They taught me empathy, compassion, patience, and mindfulness. And a gray and white kitten my sister Bev rescued from the athletic field at Etiwanda High School, whom I named Punkin, taught me about boundaries—both setting and keeping them.
It’s odd when you think about it: I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis on Shakespeare from a polytechnic university on a horse ranch. Earning dozens of extra credits in turfgrass science, agricultural biology, tree science, horticulture, urban park design, animal science, and soil science, obviously I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I liked going to school at Cal Poly. The small campus suited me. I met dynamic, creative professors who believed in me and served as my “sidewalkers” as I tried to figure out how to live. One of my writing professors, Susan Hunter, said to me, “Pay attention to what moves you. That is what matters. The more you know what makes you come alive, the more you can move with it.”
Today, the W.K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Center continues to breed the purebred Arabian horses and hold the traditional Sunday horse shows for the public. And Cal Poly continues to provide affordable, accessible, and excellent educational opportunities.
After I graduated from Cal Poly, my horseback riding adventures took me from those campus stables in Pomona to sandy beaches on the California coast, through meadows where wildflowers met the ocean, and then to the river valley canyon town of Redlands in southern California, where I fell in love with a good and gentle man, Roberto Kentake. Bobby and I went horseback riding on trails in the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota and in the deserts of Arizona. When we weren’t riding horses or working, we were singing folk blues in an old pickup truck on a dusty road.
After Bobby died, I didn’t ride for several years, not until I moved to Oregon and fell in love with a woman who was game for an adventure. Together we rode horses on the North Rim and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, drove 500 miles up the Alaska Highway during elk mating season, camped in snow outside Fort Nelson, British Columbia, and made a trip to Yosemite, where I took yet another horseback ride to the top of Nevada Fall. It was great to be riding again, and having known loneliness, love, and loss, it was sweet to know love again.
I continued riding after moving to Portland, Oregon—on guided rides as an environmental educator in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington, and as a visitor on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation at the Kah-Nee-Ta high desert resort in central Oregon. Through my membership in the Environmental Education Association of Washington from 1993-2000, I was fortunate to attend annual conferences during which I went horseback riding in restored, protected, pristine, and diverse environmental habitats and ecosystems in Washington and Oregon. I rode through dense forests around high mountain lakes in the North Cascades at Sun Mountain Lodge outside the American Old West town of Winthrop, Washington. I rode through fields and natural areas in the Puget Sound area because of a partnership with Western Washington University in Everett, Washington. I rode on the Deschutes River Trail surrounded by stunning fall foliage, blue sky, and some of the richest salmon habitat in the country. I rode in salt marshes, mudflats, and pristine estuarine habitats on Siletz Bay through partnerships with the National Wildlife Refuge and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. Those are just a few of the horseback riding adventures that an excellent education, meaningful work, community partnerships, shared values, and an adventurous spirit made me privileged to experience.
After I left the precariously funded environmental education work I loved for more stable employment with the City of Portland, I took another break from riding. Then in June 2004, a girlfriend and I loaded up my dog Pasu and our camping gear and drove to central Oregon. After a couple days of hiking and swimming in a cold creek—and an episode of Pasu getting into a swarm of bees and bacon—we took a day trip to the Crooked River Roundup Rodeo in Prineville to visit my friend’s aunt. Eager to participate in the traditional barnyard antics, we entered the silly three-legged foot race, egg toss, and tub-to-pail water relay. Without a strategy, each of us just put one leg in the burlap sack and hopped along together, laughing and joking. We wound up with dirt in our teeth. The egg toss was messy, with one egg flying over my head and landing on another player. Oops! But during the water relay, in which we used plastic cups to fetch water from a tub and then ran to fill up a bucket on the other end of the course, we performed with aplomb and grace, each of us winning a blue ribbon at the rodeo.
Today, I ride only occasionally in small groups on trails outside the city limits of Portland’s West Hills and on Sauvie Island, a large island bordered by the Columbia and Willamette rivers. Surrounded by old-growth forest and spectacular views of Mt. Hood, the trails in the West Hills are scenic and invigorating. The soft trails I ride on Sauvie Island are relaxing. From the back of a good stable horse, I soak in views of scenic pastures, creeks, the woods, and fields of pumpkins, squash, corn, berries, and flowers.
After bicycle crashes and car crashes banged me up some years ago, a few hours each month on a horse helps me in a way that more passive physical therapy can’t. Because of the heat and movement of the horse, allowing a wonderful stretch of my inner thighs and my back, I can work my leg and back muscles while the horse and the scenery maintain my interest and good spirits. The day after I can feel the difference.
My horseback rides at Kah-Nee-Ta are spiritual and stir up emotion, reminding me of special times with friends I miss from the Indian reservations in South Dakota and Arizona. Kah-Nee-Ta’s hilly, rocky, grassland trails along the bluff overlook the surrounding plateaus. A half-day ride takes me through the blood-red, desert-clay hills where the only sounds are hooves on the trail, wind through the hills, and snorts from the horses. I softly sing the songs my friends taught me and remember our good times together. The horses are Mustangs pulled from the wild herds that roam the Warm Springs Reservation. Not really suitable for inexperienced or timid riders, they require a confident and sensitive approach, soft speech, and slow movement from their riders to remain calm. The only “sidewalker” on the Kah-Nee-Ta trails is an old Border Collie.
Although I love horses and enjoy riding, I am not a horsewoman. There’s a lot about caring for horses I don’t know, and I’m still learning the language and developing my feel as a rider. Horseback riding can be serious business, a lot of give and take, and for the most part, my relationships with horses are devoid of sentimentality. But they do move me. Their authenticity every moment intensifies their powerful emotional impact, reminding me how I want to bring myself to the world. That is something to pay attention to, something that matters. A single day on a horse is restorative for me, especially now that I don’t have my sweet Pasu, the little Sheltie who was my great friend and a sidewalker of a different breed.