Back on the Horse: What It Means to be a Westerner

There used to be a website called New West, which I would occasionally write for. It closed up shop several years ago, but recently this essay –Back on the Horse: What It Means to be a Westerner–popped up somehow. I kind of like it, so I am posting it here.

Back on the Horse: What It Means to be a Westerner

We were riding through rugged mountains, past meadows busting with wildflowers, while a big blue sky hung overhead. I was looking down at the blond mane of the horse that had carried me 10 miles into the Taylor-Hilgards and back when my saddle started to roll.

I leapt from the seat and landed on my feet. My horse, Towson, was totally unfazed and kind enough to stop while I regrouped. Until then, I had been feeling pretty cocky about my horse skills. Here I was: A real Westerner atop a horse, wearing cowgirl boots in the backcountry.

I should have known better than to leave my cinch too loose. At home, my 3-year-old son and I read “Cowboy Small” ad nauseam, prompting Anders to run around the house telling me to “pull the girth tight.” Sometimes the girth is a hatband from his straw cowboy hat, other times it is a bungee cord, but the point remains the same: Don’t leave your saddle loose.

There are certain things Montanans should know how to do: Run a river, navigate in the backcountry, grow a garden amidst all odds, stomp and cheer at the rodeo and ride a horse. I’m raising two Montana boys, so I figured I better giddyup.

waht does it mean to be a westerner

Last spring, I took a semester’s worth of equitation classes and learned about horse herd dynamics, the tack, how to ride and what equitation means (horseback riding). I went from being slightly nervous around horses, to feeling comfortable tacking up and riding.

With my newfound horse-confidence bolstering me, I convinced my friend Peter Howell, owner of Willow Ranch Outfitters, to let me tag along on one of his backcountry fishing trips. He was taking four Texans into the mountains for a few days of riding and fishing alpine lakes.

I knew I wasn’t an expert, but I felt pretty cool helping Peter saddle and unsaddle, bridle and unbridle, the seven riding horses and five packhorses that transported our group and associated gear into the mountains. His Norwegian fjord horses are beautiful and fortunately, bomb proof.

As we rode through alpine meadows full of paintbrush, elephant head and lupine, I felt more like a Westerner than ever before, despite having lived in the west since the age of three. Even after spending a ridiculous amount of time in the backcountry under my own bipedal motion, this pack trip made me feel like Cowboy Small’s mom.

While the rest of the group roped cutthroat with their fly rods, I pulled off my boots and slipped into my Vibram Five Fingers. I padded over black and white striped gneiss, stepped over low-growing flowers and dodged Krumholtz.

As much as I love being a jeans-wearing, horse-riding Westerner, I’m also the other kind. The kind that wears fleece and minimalist footwear, and eats organic greens from the farmers market.

Maybe a real Westerner is one who is just as comfortable with a backpack as saddlebags. I bet Cowboy Small’s mom would be down with that. Of course, she’d never roll off her horse.

New West, October 8, 2010

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