This story is a great example of the fun Tiger and I had during our many, many adventures. He was such a thinking, feeling horse, and often responded to our encounters in ways I would never have imagined a horse could and would. Enjoy!
One early spring day I rode Tiger around the mountain counter-clockwise; up the hill out of the ranch, down the back of the little mountain into very wet area above the creek where nettles and thistles stand 6 feet high. This very muddy patch of the trail is marked by a giant cone of a hornet’s nest in the bushes to the left, just before a wood rat’s igloo of sticks, both having been there for years.
About 30 feet below the trail on the downhill side is the creek. Narrow paths, perpendicular to the trail, made by coyotes, fox, racoons, deer, elk, most likely even an occasional mountain lion., led to their favorite water holes. The abundance of wildlife in this area was evidenced by the multitude and variety of fresh tracks up and down these paths, no matter the time of day. The fecundity of the churned earth and the creek bed below made for an intoxicating quality of the air. Both Tiger and I breathed deeply, even, maybe especially, at this slow pace.
The last curve before the trail opens into the valley is speckled on the uphill side with Indian paintbrush, sage and sticky monkey flower, and on the downhill side, salmon berries, nettles and skunk cabbage. Tiger eagerly picked up speed as we rounded the corner onto the gently sloping easy grade, knowing it was our perfect place for a good canter or contained trot, as long as the footing was okay. It was often, right here, that I’d feel him tense under the saddle like he had a spring in his lower back, ready to unwind for a little crow hop or buck of excitement-nothing unsettling, just a good, fun, expression of joy and impulsion.
This was early March and though the ground had dried out somewhat there were still occasional deep badger holes, often not obvious behind the new spring grass. With due caution, I held Tiger to an excited high-spirited trot; and being slightly out of shape, he wasn’t disappointed when I brought him back to a walk once we got to the harder ground and bright green spreads of coyote bush. Flocks of quail and an occasional bobcat ran from their camouflaged hideaways as we moved through the valley’s entrance.
The terrain changed quickly from a grassy slope with early spring pools of rainwater to a granite moonscape with knee-high mounds of dirt near the thigh-deep fox and badger holes here and there. Some places were raised in hard granite like the toes of the giant, with the softer, loamy and sandy decomposed granite in the spaces between the giant’s toes.
Ahead of us, moving slowly but deliberately towards the next valley were the local herd of male elk, stubs of new antlers already pushing out on some, others, with just one large antler left, as we were approaching the end of this year’s antler shed. My eyes were always piqued to find a freshly dropped antler, as every one of them is a sculpture of nature’s form and beauty at its finest, the number and shape of each points a fingerprint, no two alike, even if from the same elk. The patina on these monuments of maleness was cast in palettes of gold, brown, bronze, black and grey, stunning in texture and hue. Picking them up and bringing them home was one thing when out hiking, but an entirely different task when on horseback.
Tiger and I tread along the more secure footing at the uphill side of the giant’s foot then traversed down the ankle of the foot to where our favorite single-track began. I leaned forward to make sure his hoof boots were still on after the muddy stretch, and seeing they were, slackened the reins, which gave Tiger permission to speed up. He burst forward with a thrill of energy. Ready for this quick advance, I regained light contact with him as he hit his stride, and together we galloped through the valley, both breathing deeply into spring’s new smells and in rhythm with the muffled sound of hooves thumping like tapping on the chest of God.
As we began to crest the hill that led to the other side of the mountain, at my urging, Tiger reluctantly slowed down. I wanted to get off before we began our descent, as the trail down to the other valley was slippery clay mixed with decomposed granite and quite steep. This, combined with the torrents of winter’s rain made for a water rutted short but treacherous path. The rain gullies could easily be 3 feet deep, with water flowing steadily till early summer. Tiger didn’t want to standstill, but he knew I needed to get off so planted his feet long enough for me to swing off his back. Together we walked carefully down the slick, furrowed slope.
“Slow, slow, slow, step, step, step, careful, careful, careful…” Over the years Tiger and I had been together, he’d learned to respond to these words and to trust that they were used at special times where caution was needed. He slowed his pace to my words, and placed his feet with awareness and discernment. I led him with enough space between us so that if he slid behind me, I could jump out of the way. We navigated the difficult stretch without mishap.
The end of the lower valley spread out ahead of us. The herd of elk grazed there, some alert to our presence, others lost in the sound of their own chewing. I let Tiger graze next to me while looking for a good “get on” place to re-mount, an elevated rock, stump or mound where I could literally get a jump-on, free from poison oak or nettles. “Here’s a good get-on place” I said out loud to Tiger, who sidled up perfectly to where I could just step right onto him. I loved him for these moments. He really knew how to take care of me, and though sometimes was stubborn, never failed to stand still for us to carry on together as horse and rider.
We continued along the base of this valley, which extended from our ‘get on place’ back to the ranch at the mouth of Drake’s Estero. The back pasture usually had elk, or coyote, maybe a bobcat or two, while the middle pasture often had black bulls the size of Volkswagens. Since this was March, the brush was thick on either side-we’d have to check for ticks, I thought, and watched for naked stems of poison oak which would surely bring their sting and itch later.
Knowing we were heading home, Tiger pranced like a circus horse. He shook his head when I tried to slow him, so the best I could do was work with his forward energy, contain it to an animated, evenly cadenced prance, sometimes side-passing from right to left, so much fun to ride! His head was high and eyes bright. I reached forward to scratch him between his ears. “What fun, Tiger, what a good boy!” He snorted with each step, springing upwards as much as forwards. We followed the serpentine of the trail, rounding the curves between the back and middle pasture.
We were suddenly stopped in our tracks. A tree had fallen across the path, branches and all, blocking our passage. Tiger raised his head, observed the tree, as did I. The hill above us was far too steep to climb up around it, and the woods the tree had been uprooted from were impenetrable. We were so close to the ranch, too! I began to turn him around, seeing no way forward without a chainsaw, but Tiger stomped his foot, and looked back at me with a perplexed and quizzical expression. He was so excited to get back to the ranch. It felt like he would do anything to get through that tree, but we didn’t have any options, far as I could tell. Curious, I decided to see how Tiger would respond to this dilemma.
I dismounted, put the reins over his neck and stood next to him, eye level. “Tiger, what are we going to do now? What do you think? He looked at me with a look like “Well we are in this together so figure it out.” I sized up the tree’s trunk. It was a solid 10 inches wide and had lodged itself deeply across the trail and embedded into hill next to us. I crawled into the bramble of branches and poised my shoulder underneath what seemed to be the fulcrum point of the main trunk, bent my knees and lifted. It didn’t budge. I tried to move it sideways, but again it didn’t budge. Tiger watched me carefully. There was no way I could lift or move the bushy crown of the tree and the branches were quite thick also, making it impossible for us go forward. Tiger would’ve had to jump 4 feet to get over this tree and that would’ve hung us up in the canopy of branches above us. I shrugged, and got ready for another longer ride back around the mountain, retracing our steps back to the ranch.
I looked at Tiger and smiled. He was carefully studying the part of the bramble of branches that rested on the top of the hill. He fixated on a small spot and moved his eyes from that spot down to the larger trunk. Then he froze, pointed to what he was looking at with his nose and stomped his foot. I giggled with delight at his intent of sizing up of the situation. “What are you thinking Tiger? Do you have a plan?”
“Take those hands of yours….”
To my surprise I heard a voice, or, more like felt his thought-words in my gut, loud and clear. “Take those hands of yours and put them right there. If you move that branch that way and this branch this way I think we can do it.” I couldn’t believe my ears wherever I heard this. “Take those hands of yours…” I lowered my eyes to Tiger’s level, and looked where he was looking. Sure enough, he may be on to something! Excited, I said “Okay I’ll give it a go!”
I moved into the tightly knit bramble branches he was pointing to, and lifted up on the upper branch. And it moved! I looked down at the lower branch Tiger had been looking at, and couldn’t really tell what the plan for this branch was. He pointed again with his nose, this time through the part of the bramble that was the most spacious, towards the other side of the trail. “Hmm, ok then. “ No easy task, I crawled through the woven crown of the tree to the other side, and could see from there what Tiger was imagining. “Yes! I see what you mean! I can do it from here Ti!” As if in agreement, he stomped his foot and shook his head again. “Okay let’s give it a go!”
I looked up to make sure my saddle wasn’t going to get ruined scraping under this branch and said “Tiger are you ready?” Holding the end of the reins I went first, lifting the top branch from the other side the best I could. Tiger, tall for an Arabian, followed, making himself as small as he could-he dropped his neck, twisted his head sideways, lowered even his withers and his shoulders, scooped his back down like he was doing the limbo, and stepped very intentionally, each foot carefully placed between the gnarl of branches, and emerged on the other side of the tree, my saddle completely unscathed!
I let out a loud whoop and Tiger snorted, shook his head from side to side and stomped his foot in happiness, both of us exclaiming genuine surprise and excitement at our triumph. I patted him effusively, telling him what a good boy he was for getting us through, as it was his careful evaluation of this obstacle that got us through, not mine! “Wow, Tiger, what a smart horse!” We walked on lightly and with the sense between us for having shared such a surprising adventure. Tiger swayed his head to look at me several times with a gratified and fulfilled expression. Eventually I found another good “get on place” and we had a lively, happy trot back to the ranch.