The clouds churned overhead, the color of rough asphalt, while I made the hasty arrangements for my horse trek. I had to be ready in 30 minutes. It was best that I had no time to change my mind. We would ride for more than 2 hours. Bliss. I grabbed a raincoat and left the Martinborough Hotel.
As I drove out to the the farm the landscape swelled and gathered dramatically around me. The brown hilltops punched through the the clouds their tops disappearing in mist. Now and then the clouds parted and teased me with a quick look at the elusive sun, but always closed back fast.
When I arrived four horses waited, saddled and bridled with reins removed, all standing hipslung, resting. Allison, an ironwood tree wrapped in tanned leather of a woman in charge of the lot reached out a friendly branch to greet me. Sized up by my sensible handshake, and real riding gear, I knew I passed her tourist test when she handed me a hoofpick. She smiled wide and asked me to check the feet on Sirka, my mount for the day, while we waited for the others to arrive.
Sirka was cross. The mare glanced at me sideways, disinterested, the kind of horse glance reserved for riders who only show up once. I understood. I looked in her eye and promised her I was kind, and that we would have fun, even if it was only a one night stand. She offered a foot for cleaning in acceptance of the deal.
The others arrived. A handsome mother Jenny and her young daughter, Kate; a red-head with sweet blue eyes set above a storm of rose-colored freckles. She was about 10, a prime time to discover a one way ticket into horse-madness. Smiling Michelle also arrived, daughter of Allison, the same spirit in a softer, less tanned wrapper. Her big half-draft gelding Serg bounded out of the trailer, feathers flying. In minutes we swung out.
My mare was strong as an ox, dead calm, but a leader. She nosed out ahead of the pack and pinned her ears at the geldings threatening to nudge ahead of her. I listened to her, and noted not to question her ideas too much. I knew she knew the way.
We soon settled into the rhythm of the ride, and the familiar decadent wash of total happiness and deep love I find on horseback in the open field found the shore of my soul once again and swallowed me whole. My entire being was smiling. Sirka softened through the saddle.
The trail followed an easy path that soon turned into a brisk climb up the lush hillside. We leaned forward and fresh horses made light of the descent. From the ridge we could see far; hillsides full of sheep-dots, black Angus cattle grazing. Allison and Michelle rode abreast ahead of me, chatting away and shouting greetings to neighbors across the canyon riding out on their own trail opposite us. I watched them and thought about how nice it would be to live close by my own mom and to be able to trek together at a moments notice. She and I ride together virtually now, on different sides of the US, leaving voice mails for each other from horseback, the clip of hoof steps in the background.
Allison pointed out local trees and their uses as well as birds which she identified by their songs alone. It was a beautiful, rugged land. We wound around and marched on, in silent single file, hoofs smacking the basaltic riverbed in deafening percussion making conversation impossible.
A very slick, rocky and technical climb (even for a very experienced rider) up and out of the river valley had me concerned for little Kate as we had learned only after our take off that this was her first ride off the lead-rope. Quite a maiden voyage for a little girl. I peeked back after we reached the top, relieved to see her still sitting on the right side of her petite paint horse, grinning at her achievement. That one would stay with her forever, well done, Kate.
And on we went, now happy for the clouds keeping us out of the sun. Gate after gate through pastures of sheep, cows, more sheep. Allison was in the business of export and lamb was her game. I learned about her passion for fox hunting, which She and Michelle enjoyed together hacked in between hunts to brian. They pointed out the low fences, called snags, where one was advised to head towards for ease of clearance. They told me about the tradition of carrying a flask on the all day rides, full of brandy or whiskey, which should not be brought back empty. “Some carry two!” Allison said mischievously about their “jumping juice.” Fox hunting sounded fun.
One last steep, strenuous climb. Me standing straight up in stirrups, holding a chunk of Sirka’s thick black mane just behind her ears and lying on her neck while she humped up the grade wound up our trek. At the top we could see for miles, almost to the coast in some directions. The view was simply stunning. The horses blew and snorted from the ascent. When it was time Sirka led the way home, down the other side. I let her go. She knew the way.