NOLS Horse Packing

Whitney and Dakota

Editor’s Note: Whitney Johnson is a former teacher and outdoor educator currently pursuing a Master’s in social work. She lives in Leadville, Colorado, with her three dogs and is still pining for a horse of her own.

In this guest column, Whitney writes about her experiences during a horse packing course, offered by NOLS.

Johnson writes:

There’s just something about a horse. Close your eyes and imagine:

  • Delicate nostrils flaring. A snort.
  • Etched, curved ears swivel to catch a sound
  • Deep, liquid eyes lock with yours. Inquisitive, skeptical.
  • Flittering tufts of mane catching the breeze lifting off the regal arch of his neck.
  • The deep chest, rippling shoulders, and chiseled hindquarters flex as he wheels on hind legs, tail lifted high, billowing behind.

The horse seems suspended, slowing the rush of a busy world for just a moment.

Now as back when they were immortalized in cave paintings, these creatures represent wildness, freedom, and spirit. There is something indefinable and inarticulable that captivates us and draws us to this symbol of power and grace.

Riding imbues us with those same qualities, too. The relationship created between human and horse brings out our highest relational selves. The boundaries blur between wildness and domestication, between freedom and constraint. We are forced to engage with trust, curiosity, kindness, generosity, and courage. The more we put in, the more we see it mirrored for us in the horse.

There’s an ongoing joke in my family about me and horses. For maybe longer than I’d like to admit (uh…still), a horse has been on my Christmas list, my birthday list, my life’s vision list.

My older sister started taking riding lessons when she was quite young. I was mesmerized, watching from between the white rails as she and her horse trotted about the arena. It was those qualities—freedom, wildness, spirit—that captured me then as they do now.

On the best days, at the end of the lesson, someone would lift me up to sit behind her, and we all would walk around the ring. Looking at the world spreading out around me from the back of that horse, my arms wrapped around my sister’s waist, paired with a deep sense of fullness and as much gratitude as a child can muster. That stuck.

Luckily, my parents were able to provide lessons for me, too, and so, horses became one of my passions as a young girl. A number of factors distanced me from riding later:  adventures through college, years working seasonal jobs in outdoor education, and a master’s degree program that led to teaching. The horse passion sat dormant, nestled in the back of my mind.

Longing is weighty, whether it’s for something we can name or not. It was that sense of longing—like the pendulum of a grandfather clock towing on your heartstrings—that led me to a NOLS Alumni Horse Packing trip.

At Three Peaks Ranch, the staff, instructors, and participants exchanged hot, hearty handshakes and dusty hugs, inhaled sweet smells of hay and horse, and exhaled laughter.

The kitchen and campground were sites of camaraderie as all of us settled in and had the chance to meet. Over the next two days spent at the ranch, we would do a lot of learning and practicing skills related to our fellow teammates—the horses—and how to care for and thrive with them. This was no ordinary day at my childhood barn. As much preparation and planning as we do for ourselves, we also needed to do for the horses.

Ranch life begins early and ends… not-that-early. After a breakfast of steaming eggs, bacon, and sautéed veggie burritos and a first round of coffee, we were introduced in Horse Psychology 101, covering fight or flight instincts, herd dynamics, and horse communication.

We sat on pins and needles waiting to learn who our partners would be. Getting matched with your horse feels a little bit like partner-work activities in middle school. I hope I get a pretty one.  I hope I get a smart one.  I hope I get the best one.

In truth, they’re all really pretty and so smart at being in the backcountry and hauling you and your gear around. And they are the absolute best if they’re your partner!

“Whitney and Dakota!”

I walked with my instructor, Curtis, into the corral with halter ready. Dakota was a handsome, dappled blue-grey gelding. Confidence and intelligence shone in his eyes. He was a patient teacher while I learned to groom, saddle, bridle, mount, go, steer, stop, and dismount.

That day, we were rewarded with a sunset ride through sage and wildflowers. Staring between the ears of a horse, squinting as the sun emblazoned the earth gold, the boundaries began to break down. The horse, so magnificent and unknown, somehow became a little less horse, and I somehow became a little less tied to the bounds of humanhood.

We students settled into the rhythm of the ranch and the pace of learning.  In the rest of our time there, we covered saddling pack horses, packing panniers, throwing loads, hitching loads, leading pack horses, and hobbling horses.

We ate delicious meals, mapped our routes, got gear, packed, and loaded trailers for our departure to the backcountry the next day.

Some NOLS horse packing highlights:

  • Listening to fellow student Steve sing Italian love songs to his ride horse Wanda
  • Laughing with Steve and Izzy in the tent every night as we debate the merits of given cryptids
  • Eating fresh caught, breaded and fried fish
  • Falling asleep and waking up to the melodious tinging of belled horses
  • Picking fresh currants and serving them up them up with cheese, crackers, and a glass of wine
  • Jumping into the most beautiful, fresh swimming hole on a hot afternoon while horses graze nearby
  • Walking through dew-covered grass, kicking over piles of poop on the way to catch horses
  • Rolling out and rolling in horse fence
  • The smell of a salty, sweaty horse and damp leather
  • Getting out of the tent to pee, seeing the eye of a giant animal, and realizing, in peals of laughter, that it’s only a reflector on a tent in the distance
  • Watching instructor Kelsey re-shoe a horse on trail.
  • Whiskey, currant, brown sugar syrup over  buttermilk pancakes
  • Jokes about one horse’s 80’s-style bangs
  • Multiple rounds of coffee in a group kitchen; shared biscuits and snacks
  • Reaching the top of a mountain pass.

It’s the horses at the core.

Selflessly and generously, they give of themselves for our utility, pleasure, and purpose. Their hard work ethic allows us mobility—the freedom to travel where and how we choose. Without knowing what to anticipate around the next bend, in the middle of a creek crossing, or at the top of a steep incline, our horses forge ahead with great courage and curiosity.

They are role models in stepping outside the familiar and comfortable, standing face to face with a herd of cows, and acting with remarkable grace under pressure. With the support of their herd behind them and trust in the rider on top, they will break trail over deadfall, stepping delicately, bending and flexing so as not to take out a rider’s knee or a pannier, adapting to the terrain and partner.

Horses have long provided companionship, partnership, friendship, and simple joys. Over the course of eight days with Dakota, these facets developed in new, more profound ways than I ever expected. Because of his willingness and ability, I was able to experience myself and the world around me in new ways. He gave me the gift of true presence and rootedness, showing me how and rewarding me for it. He was able to reflect back the trust, courage, vulnerability, and hard work like a mirror and lend me the horse’s spirit, power, and grace in exploring a mountain range that already holds such a special place in my heart.

It’s easy to remember watching the herd gambol through the tall grass in the afternoon sun, the swaying feeling of Dakota’s long, relaxed walk, the friendships and community that developed. Such simple pleasures but at the same time, exemplary of the depth of connection and richness of shared experience in joy, sorrow, and challenge.

I was reminiscing about this trip on a return drive from the horse rescue where I now volunteer. Upon arrival home, I shuffled out to the mailbox and found a card from my parents inside. “Maybe it’s time to ask for a pony again” it said, surrounded by green glitter and alongside a pink-hoofed horse. The joke lives on.

But, you know, there’s just something about a horse. And, it never hurts to hope, right?

Instruction at the NOLS ranch

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