It was a hot day. Long and luring, the Columbia shimmers, the sunlight dancing along its face like a cascade of diamonds.
To the river is not where I’m heading on this day, though it’s refreshing embrace is longed for. Instead, I take a winding Country Club road out to Post Canyon Drive and pull into a small horse farm. I spot a few of the animals grazing inside expansive pens, their coats rippling with each movement, the sheer muscle mass evident from the driveway. The entire estate is a large square, a cookie-cutter combo of acreage lined neatly by wooden fences; the house is front and center, with a lush garden, a sizeable barn with adjoining arena are nestled in back and the horse pens outline the property. The term picturesque comes to my mind as me and my colleague walk to the house.
We’re greeted by a cheerful, energetic woman named Betty Osborne and her two Italian greyhounds. As their pattering paws perform an elaborate tap dance routine around our ankles, Betty talks us through her and her husband’s horse histories, both being quite the equestrian enthusiasts in their own right. With the introduction concluded, Betty points us towards the barn, where she claims her husband, Kurt, will be working.
Kurt was shoveling crap — literally.
We found him with a pitchfork in hand, scooping horse apples in the stables. With a kind, quick greeting, he invited us to view the horses until he could meet us. Walking the fence lines, our presence drew the horses to us, their curiosity momentarily overwhelming their hunger. We came to a common ground, where the fences of the three main pens connected, and watched the arrival of our odd-toed audience. A lone black gelding (castrated male) sauntered over, his hesitance evident, the electric fencing around his pen a compliment to his tenser, outward nature. Two others came over in a separate pen, another gelding and a mare, their copper coats shining like newly minted pennies. It was clear from the way they walked, slow and confident, less than six inches apart, that these friends were nice and relaxed. Their heads extended over their pen gate, cautious to our touch but eager to express a welcome.
I had been around horses before, even ridden one years ago. I imagine I could ride one every day and never lose the sense of awe I feel standing before them. The power and poise that radiates from their bodies, it draws my breath short. The copper male is in lead, and its him I approach with a wary hand raised. His mood is calm, but I know the potential at rest; his shoulders and neck alone dwarf me, the taught muscles like steel cables wound in an intricate network dedicated to ensuring that potential is fulfilled with every single movement. Amongst humans, I’m a big guy — 6’6” and 240 pounds, but such size is moot here; at best I could rival a foal.
He huffs, the sound escaping his mouth in ripples. I run my hand along his muzzle and up through his forehead. His hair is short and smooth, the rigid bones of his face like a hardened shell. His mane is threads of coarse brown hair, identical in shade to the swishing tail that falls behind his back legs. Two ears stand alert, twitching left and right. His eyes are focused on me, brown points among alabaster pools.
Kurt arrives and identifies each horse — the gelding I’ve met is named Badger. He’s a 10-year-old Quarter Horse, the most popular breed in the United States, known for its speed across short distances. He’s also the one I’ll be riding today. Kurt explains that Badger’s mix of calm temperament and bolder nature makes him suitable for a stranger; his friend, Annie, would prove a bit more standoffish. Kurt loops a halter around Badger’s nose, attaches a lead, and escorts him from the pen towards the barn/arena. He has to quickly close the gate behind him to keep Annie from following, and she stares after us as we bid her farewell and take Badger away.
Badger’s halter is hooked to two pegs on either side of a temporary stable, where he remains for the next 20 minutes while Kurt briskly brushes him from head to toe and talks me through the riding process. He lays a blanket across Badger’s back and hitches a saddle atop it. The poor boy is anxious, despite Kurt’s reassuring pats; his shoes clatter back and forth across the cement floor. With the saddle tight and the bridle in place, Badger is ready, and Kurt leads us all out to the arena. He has me approach Badger on the left side, the standard mounting side. From there, Kurt holds the lead and tells me to mount — simple as that. Hold the reins, put your left foot in the stirrup, swing the right over, grab the saddle horn to center yourself.
I’m up. Atop my steed, I am imbued with his brawn; the clout of his essence is empowering, an injection of vigor to my veins. It courses through my blood as we view our surroundings. We, a pair of power prepped to streak across the plains. I can envision the invitation of the flatlands, the sea of grass that beckons to the herd, the ensuing stampede that thunders across the Midwest. To be among them, the last stallions of a dying legacy; it is a fleeting daydream. I am brought back by the sudden autonomy I possess — Kurt has unclipped the lead. The reins rest in my hands and Badger stands idle, awaiting my command. I click and squeeze my legs against his flank. A shudder of movement is all that splits the stillness of the air, and in an instant Badger and I are off to a steady walk.
To me, pace is irrelevant. Badger and I walk circles in the arena, his steadfast gate and ingrained obedience turning the endeavor from nerve-wracking to enjoyable, nay, thrilling (pun intended). We walk over wooden logs, a series of makeshift barriers that he traverses with ease. With a hard push from my left leg and a swing of the reins to the right, Badger keeps his back feet planted and rotates around his front, completing a full circle. I reverse my leg and swing the reins back, and counter clockwise we go. I click twice and squeeze hard, and off he sets into a trot. A sharp pull on the reigns and he stops in place, as is the same if I raise my feet in the stirrups and push on them.
Badger is wild, in nature and spirit; his blood flows with the heart of his ancient brethren, an intangible element that bore itself at birth and can never be broken. But, he is tame and trained. He is a patient and kind horse, a gentle giant among lesser beings who indulges their whim without so much as a whinny. As we walk and trot in sloping circles around the arena, I survey my surroundings as a ranger may, a man loose upon the world in search of continued liberation. The arena walls fall to my imagination, and now it is Badger and I trotting through the stalks of the countryside, clouds of dust rolling across the hills ahead, basked in the glow of a waning amber sun. To the horizon goes the herd and in their wake go Badger and I, a pair perched precariously, and purposefully, on the divide between feral and tame. Away go his ancestors, and to reality I return, my experience coming to an end. Badger has brought me realization unfiltered, and a small part of me wishes to throw myself down upon his back in tight embrace.
Instead, I dismount and run my hand along his flank. He huffs and lets Kurt lead him back to the stall to remove the saddle. My colleague and I follow Kurt as he leads Badger back into the open air. A sharp, cheerful neigh erupts from his pen and Annie comes cantering across the green, overjoyed to see her friend once more. As they are reunited and wander further into the field together, I cannot help but smile. They are, together, a small window into a world passed. Not forgotten, not void of life, but passed all the same. The herds have dwindled and died, but here, as is true across pockets throughout the world, these majestic creatures thrive under the care of their loving owners, and lucky are we who share in a sliver of their splendor.
A special thanks to Betty and Kurt Osborne at Wind Dance Stable who offered me this horseback riding experience. Both are wonderful caregivers to their horses and have extensive knowledge and understanding of the animal and the sport, all of which helped in making my experience a smooth and safe one.