Story Sunday: A Lost Horse Comes Home
A day late... it's true, but better late than never. This is a true story, and one that is close to my heart because it details the many stories that swirl around my brain when I think about the beginnings of Jingle and I. Enjoy.
Heading up the valley to bring the herd home
It was the spring of 2012, and it was my job at the ranch I was working at to bring home the 60+ horses that made up our summer camp dude string. A month previous they had been let out on the thousands of acres of grazing lease that we had to graze down the hip-heigh grasses that had grown while they had been away in winter pasture. I was buzzing with excitement for various reasons - the first was that, this was the first time I would be doing this job alone. The second, I was just a 20 year old kid who was obsessed with being in the saddle, and now i'd be getting hours upon hours of it. Finally, the third - I had purchased a horse from the ranch over a hand shake and a cup of coffee a few months beforehand, a horse I loved, and he was out there with that herd, and I was going to bring him home.
I had little horse flesh to my disposal, since the main string was out on the lease, and I opted to ride a little paint mare named "Butterfly". She may have been small, but she was mighty. Many times I would find myself turned around, and she always knew the way home, the right path to take, the bog to avoid. She was steady and solid as we crawled over the foothills. I asked her up and down ledges, cliffs and moss hills. We spent hours searching for tracks in the mud along the river beds, up in the clearings that felt like we were on top of the world, down in the valleys where I was the only human for miles and miles. Four days of solid sun up to sun down riding later, and I had found nothing but my own madness in those hills.
Butterfly and I would crawl back to the ranch as the sun set. I would dejectedly take her saddle off, grain her, and then bow-legged, would ease myself in the Rancher's house for a cup of hot coffee, and a game plan for the next day. I knew behind the Rancher's kind and understanding eyes that he was doubting my abilities to find his string. He never said it, but I knew.. and how could he not? I was new to this, new to this game, and new to searching these hills and performing this task.
By the time the seventh day had crept upon us, and people had come to join me in my search, we all realized something was wrong... where were our horses? Finally, two weeks in to the search, we heard word from a neighbouring ranch that shared gates had been left open during the winter and our horses had been spotted in their leases. We headed out the next day, with two large paint mares loaded in to the trailer that could handle the deep mud, bogs, and roaring rivers that had occurred thanks to a wet spring. The land we were riding on was some of the most beautiful I'd ever experienced - the lease cut in half by a large rocky gorge, with a rambling river at the base of it. I could feel my nerves peaking at this point, the anticipation of finding my horse shooting through my fingers as I held on to my reins. Two hours into the search we heard a whinny in the distance, and came upon a clearing where we spotted our herd.
Horses milled together, and I found some in the crowd I could easily identify, but before I could look for Jingle, my own horse, they began to run from us and the push was on. We pushed them north through the gates, hooves pounding and churning up mud as we went, and arced them east down the valley and towards the ranch. Gates had been flung open there, and the barn was waiting for our horses to come home.
The chase was uneventful, the horses knew the direction home, and we maintained a steady clip as we pushed them - we were not coming home empty handed. Camp was looming, and we needed to get riding, and start prepping. As they churned through the open gates, I raced ahead and began to spot horses I knew as if they were my own family members - 'Timber, Mac, Ballet, Hoover, Wizard...' I mumbled as I spotted them out from the herd, 'Misty, Josie, Birdie, Marchessa....' Over and Over them I went, and my stomach began to toss and turn... I knew, my horse was not there. I was right.
Jingle, and four colts ranging from four years old to two had not come in with the rest of the herd. Jingle, and four horses that had no importance to the camp operations. My horse, and four horses that were of no significance. My heart plummeted down to the ground, I knew the Rancher wouldn't want me expending my time trying to find Jingle... he was mine, not the ranches, and I had other horses I could use to guide on during the camp season.
So, it became a ritual - evenings where the sun still hung around in the Alberta sky long enough to light my path - I would head on the trail, get to the neighbouring property and search until the sun began to fade warning me to go home. I couldn't find him. I couldn't find tracks. I couldn't find anything. The neighbour called and told us they'd been sighted - I would head that direction, and by the time I got there they were mere ghosts, they had faded off into the trees just as fast as I had come.
Weeks went by, and I was so busy with camp operations that I had no time to try to find my horse. As the summer moved slowly onwards, the light wasn't as strong as it had been and more nights than not I would have to turn around before even starting the search. I would come in for dinner and hold my head in my hands while people talked around me. The Rancher saw my pain, and seriously considered hiring a helicopter to find them. As a last ditched attempt another riding leader, who had been around since the very beginning, decided he would attempt to go try to find Jingle.
I knew of his plans as he and his wife saddled their horses, and packed their bags for a long day of riding. I inwardly doubted he'd have any success when I headed out on my own guided ride that morning. The morning ride ran late and I was in a rush to get back and have the kids unsaddled and ready for lunch when I came back to the corrals. I was barking demands to my counsellors, attempting to get everything moving along, when I thought I saw a familiar horse in the far corrals. I blinked, rubbed my tired eyes and shook my head at my own insanity. He wasn't there, I knew he wasn't there. Until I heard someone yell my name, I didn't look towards the voice but back at the horse and I knew in that very second, that I hadn't been wrong - he was home. He had come home to me.
I jumped off my guide horse and let the reins hit the dirt as I ran toward him - my horse, my very own horse, he was here. I jumped the panel, and he turned and came towards me. At this point, tears were flowing down my cheeks, as I buried my face in his long disheveled mane. My arms wrapped firmly around his neck. My horse, my very own horse, he had finally come home to me. It was a very beautiful day.
I later learned that the riding leader and his wife had come upon the gate into the neighbouring pasture, and there the five escapees were standing. All in a row, waiting as it were, waiting to come home. All those days of searching those hills, and on that day - the day I was elsewhere - they had decided it was time to come home.
Horses are funny creatures, aren't they?
In the beginning.