Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Grand Tetons - By Horse and By Foot

By Horse

I have ridden a number of times beginning in my early teens, including twice in the mountain jungles above Puerta Vallarta, on farms in Michigan and Wisconsin during fall color weekends and in Smoky Mountains National Park. It had been 7 years, however, since either my partner or I had been on horseback.

Once astride the horse does most of the work. At 5'5" tall my biggest challenge is getting on and off the animal. Chosen for me was a massive chestnut draft horse. Lifting my knee almost to my chin, I hooked my foot in the stirrup, climbed aboard and settled myself in the beautiful, vintage hand tooled leather saddle. The various colors of my horses mane made it look as if he had recently gone to a salon for foil highlights. My partner was given an equally large blond draft horse while our guide was astride a black and white quarter horse which he claimed was an idiot who he hated and hated to ride. The horse did not seem to mind and had the attitude that he was in charge since he was bigger than the guide and could throw him at any time.

We had picked up our guide at a staging ranch in Teton Village where the three horses were loaded on to a trailer attached to a pickup. Our guide got into the pickup and we followed him to a ranch 20 minutes away where we now found ourselves, in the saddle and ready to go. The ranch has 1200 horses. The sitcom "Modern Family" had used this ranch for the horses in this season's opening episode, set in the Tetons.

The promotional material promises the guides are real cowboys. They do not lie. Our guide was a young, lanky Texan who competed in the rodeo circuit during the winter months. In his cowboy hat, jeans and muddy boots he certainly looked the part. His habit of chewing tobacco lent him an added air of authenticity. Twice during the ride he got the horse he was on, the one he called an idiot, to spin  explaining to us how he managed to signal the horse to do so.

The air was cool, clean and crisp and the sky a brilliant blue as we started off. My horse seemed to enjoy taking a more leisurely pace then the horses of our guide and my partner. On occasion I would have to hit his sides with my legs at which point he would gallop to the point of catching up with the others. Each time, as soon as he accomplished this, he would return to his poky gait. We soon reached the first of several steep grades which had been made slick and a little treacherous by the rains of the previous night. My horse sidestepped the muddy trail and climbed the hill on the grass along it's edge. Judging from his panting at the top of this first hill it occurred to me that the gray in his mane may have been the result of age. At each  hill the poor guy seemed reluctant but resigned to carrying me up it.

At one point the guide, claiming Rick Perry was a family friend tried to engage us in a political conversation. We sidestepped this with questions about the local flora and fauna and the altitude we would eventually reach (7800 feet). At the summit we rested the horses and took in the expansive view. The winding Snake River cut through the valley below us. In the distance rose the snow capped Tetons. Magpies flew above our heads moving from treetop to treetop. Autumn gold grass mixed with dull olive sage and the bright yellow fall leaves and pure white trunks of aspens covered the hills which led down to the valley floor dotted with the homes, barns and outbuildings of the area ranches.

My horse seemed even more reluctant to go downhill then he had to go up. Eventually, he relented and caught up with the guide and my partner who were a little distance ahead of us.

Near the conclusion of the ride we entered a meadow where several white horses and an adorable Shetland pony were grazing. My partner asked if we could post the last few yards through the meadow. After eliciting a promise from us not to tell anyone we did this (a promise I just broke) he allowed us to do so. This is the point at which my horse came into his own. His unrestrained glee at running fast over flat land made it difficult for me to slow him down at the ride's end. After dismounting, I mentioned to the guide how beautiful I thought the saddle on my horse was. He shared my admiration for it and gave me a quick primer on how they hand cut and stamp leather. He expressed to us how much he had enjoyed the ride as he gave us a firm handshake. We tipped him and climbed back into our car.

Before returning to Jackson for dinner and a good night's rest we drove out to the Tetons one last time. We stood at a scenic turnout contemplating and admiring their grandeur and beauty before bidding them farewell, thanking them for the memories they would leave us with.

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