My Wyoming summer

A long-ago horseback trip into the Absaroka Mountains helped set me on the path to professional–and equestrian–success.
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A long-ago horseback trip into the Absaroka Mountains helped set me on the path to professional–and equestrian–success.

I had just stormed out of the first good job I’d had since graduating high school. For the past year, I had assumed the duties of the vacated position of finance statistician while still performing my own job as secretary to the department head. It meant longer hours with no extra pay, but I wanted to land that job!

Then came the day when my boss asked me to come into his office and close the door. He said he needed me to arrange meetings for the managers to meet the new finance statistician he had just hired. Yes, he had received the managers’ memo requesting that I be given the job full time, and he agreed that the reports had never been more timely or accurate. So why wasn’t I considered for the job?

“How would it look if I replaced a 35-year-old man with a girl just two years out of high school?” he said.

It was 1976, you see, and in 1976 you could say things like that. No one bothered with discrimination. (Like when the Dean of Agriculture at a local college talked me out of joining the program because, he said, women rarely graduated: “They joined the program only to marry a farmer.”) My parents were no help, either. I’d taken that job as a secretary, despite having graduated near the top of my high school class, because they’d declined to pay for my college education, saying, “We’re not going to waste our money that way,” and they’d also refused to submit financial statements that would have allowed me to apply for scholarships.

1976 had not been a good year for me. My parents divorced, sold my childhood home and gave away our dog. My fiancé broke off our engagement. Tackling the new job assignment had been the bright spot of the year, but now I had been told that no matter how well I did, I wouldn’t get the job because of who I was. So I gave my boss an ultimatum---either I get the job or I walk.

I walked.

My self-confidence was shot, and I needed to get it back. With my father’s surprising encouragement, I drained my bank account and drove westward to “find myself.” My first extended stop was Cody, Wyoming, where in the lobby of the historic Irma Hotel, I found brochures for an outfitter advertising horseback pack trips into the Absaroka Range, which spans the Montana-Wyoming border.

I had been in love with horses all my life. Hundreds of statues had decorated my bedroom as a little girl, each with its own name. And I had spent many happy hours at the livery stable during our annual vacations, but I never had a horse of my own, nor did
I know anyone who did. I signed up for the pack trip.

This, I hoped, was just what I needed---beautiful, mountainous country, in the company of horses. I also hoped to meet women with similar interests with whom I could talk about all the disappointments I’d lived through lately. I was excited to finally meet the rest of the tour group at a dinner the night before we departed, but when I came into the room, I was met with a terrible shock:

I was going to be the only girl on a trip with all men! That night I called my father, crying that I had made a horrible mistake coming out here and thinking I could do such a thing alone. But it was too late to back out now, so the next morning I put on my bravest face and went to the departure point.

As we were each introduced to the horses who would be our companions for the next nine days, I found myself face to face with Bonnie, the most beautiful horse in the world. Looking back at the pictures now, I’d say she was a jug-headed, pot-bellied, sorrel grade mare. But I couldn’t have asked for a better or kinder companion.

My apprehension about the trip evaporated as soon as we started up the first trail. The scenery was magnificent! The high, craggy stone peaks of the mountains were patched with white snow, even in July, and the trail climbed through grassy tablelands and wound through pine forests. And the wildlife! Elk and mule deer are common in the Absarokas, and on the first morning I spotted my first moose. An honest-to-goodness moose!

With our packhorses in tow, our caravan moved slowly, and Bonnie handled the goat-trails with such assurance that I was able to take ample pictures from her back. We spent our days negotiating the mountain trails, stopping for lunch near trout streams. The nights began with a hearty dinner and ended near the campfire under the chilly, clear evening air.

On the second day, we pitched our tents just over the ridge from a picturesque swimming hole surrounded on all sides by tall hills dotted with snow. The men saddled up their horses and rode over the ridge to take a communal bath, leaving me to sit in the grass at camp and ponder life. I could hear their laughter and the splashing, and I smiled. When they returned, it was my turn. I changed into a bathing suit, hopped on Bonnie bareback and spent a glorious hour swimming in the cold, clear water. Sitting on a rock to dry off, I could feel my worries draining away. Heck, if you could always retreat to places like this when you needed them, life would just seem easier.

All of the men on the trip treated me with respect and father-like affection. I got on especially well with one of the guides, Ken, a Vietnam veteran, and the only man I knew who had fought there. He had lost one leg in a grenade explosion, and he didn’t want to face life with his family and friends back East in this condition, so he had driven out West until he hooked up with this outfitter in Cody. It wasn’t like he was glad that he had lost his leg, but Ken firmly believed that he couldn’t possibly have been this happy living his old life. We talked about destiny and fate, and all those kinds of things.

One morning I was awakened by a scratching on my tent. It was Ken. The horses had disappeared, he said, and it was his job to go find them. He could use some company, though. Honey, the lead mule, was kept tethered at the camp just for times like this, and we rode double in search of the runaways. The outfitters had camped near this spot before, and Ken thought the horses might remember a grassy plateau that was on the way to the next campsite.

Sure enough, after we rode a couple of miles through the trees, we broke out into a grassy meadow and there was the herd, standing fetlock-deep in wet, dewy grass, their breaths visible in the frosty air. We rounded up and haltered the two lead horses, and I caught, bridled and mounted my dear Bonnie. We slowly led the horses back to camp, making small talk. I was satisfied with life.

The trip itinerary included two “resting” days, when the horses were left to graze while the men went trout fishing. On one of those days, the other guide, Dick, asked if I’d like to help him train Hopper, a young bay gelding who was on his first trip as a pack animal. Hopper had never carried a person on his back before, but Dick wanted to see how he might do. I had never before been on a horse who wasn’t thoroughly broke to ride, but I was game to try!

Dick showed me how to sack out a young horse, then we slowly got him accustomed to a saddle, then to my weight (which was considerably less than the packs he had already been carrying so capably). Within an hour Dick got on his horse and ponied us alongside, first just around the meadow and then into the woods. Hopper was a dear and took good care of me. He was going to be a good riding horse, and I would probably be all right, too.

At the end of the trip, I kissed all my horse friends goodbye on their soft little noses. I thanked Ken and Dick, too, for taking such good care of us. But my adventures weren’t over yet. I spent two more weeks exploring Yellowstone National Park before I finally decided it was time to head for home.

This trip changed my life. I came away rejuvenated---amazed to have experienced a part of the country I’d only known through photographs, and seeing it on horseback made it incomparable. We’d visited places accessible only on foot or the back of a horse. For a native of the flat Midwest, those mountain trails had seemed terrifying at first, yet my Bonnie---and indeed, the entire pack string of horses and mules---never took a wrong step.

My self-confidence was back. Before, I had always been the loner, the introvert, the wallflower who was afraid to get out there and participate in the world. Friends and family had been surprised that I had the courage to take such a journey by myself. And, I admit, I had embarked on it partly to withdraw from the world I had grown up in. But once I was out there, I discovered that I had the ability to be sociable, to be useful to others, to be resourceful and self-reliant. And, I had to admit, maybe it really did take a gutsy girl to do something like this alone.

For the next 20 years, I took entry-level positions at all kinds of companies. I set my sights on whatever jobs I wanted, and I didn’t stop until I’d worked my way up the ladder and got them. If I got bored, I’d turn my sights somewhere else. I went to night school, and eventually I had the knowledge and experience I needed to take the biggest risk of all and become self-employed as a computer programmer.

The other big impact that 1976 trip had was that horses became a constant part of my life. For nine days, I had watched these Wyoming cowboys taking such good care of their horses, and I witnessed the deep emotional connection they shared. I spent time with horses who recognized their riders and nickered and nuzzled them (stuff I’d thought only happened in movies). And I had discovered that talking to Bonnie made me feel better whenever I felt too alone.

As I drove home, I longed for a horse of my own, and as soon as I got my next job, I bought one. I tried showing and jumping, but I soon found my favorite niche in competitive trail riding. The sport requires an extreme bond between horse and rider, plus it offers the excitement of traveling to new places, camping with your horse, exploring new trails and making new friends. It’s like a little bit of Wyoming every time.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #452, May 2015.