Spring Horse Drive, Rock Creek Stables, 2013. Long story short.
To cut the romance, we're moving stock. Riding and pack animals from Independence to Rock Creek in the Sierras. However….
The first morning we got up in camp at 4; the horses were saddled as soon as we could see them. Independence, California, out in the Owens Valley desert. The 30+ of us rode 4 miles down the road, and then the wranglers released the herd, altogether 90 strong, horses and mules together. They galloped at us across the dawn desert and my heart lifted.
I was assigned Hidalgo, an enormous paint who stands 5'6" at the withers, nearly 17 hands, and built to match. He must have draft horse in him somewhere. He's a tank. I love this horse. It is said that big horses have a smoother ride, but this is not true of Hidalgo, whose trot is like an alternating set of jack hammers. We fast-trotted all day 9 hours a day for 4 days. The temperature was about 95. Could have been as much as 10 degrees hotter, we were grateful. I felt like someone was beating me up. I enjoyed every minute of it.
One does not actually "drive" horses. One drives cattle, who don't want to move. This bunch wanted to move, and our job was mostly to hold them back. The danger is always stampede. If we lose control people and horses will be injured, in all likelihood.
No stampedes, no one fell off, no person and no horse got hurt. But I was sometimes in a justified fear for my life.
We camped out in tents. We slept on the ground. I passed out immediately when I laid down.
Last day. We're now up 6,000 feet from Independence, now 90 miles behind us, and our last task is to come down a very steep cliff by a series of switchbacks perhaps 2 miles long in total. The horses, given their heads, are carefully picking their way down, and I'm hanging on for dear life. Once I almost did fall as Hidalgo suddenly stepped down by 2 feet at one go. That horn on that saddle was a lifesaver.
So now we're down finally, and after this I have no more resistance. I have no thoughts. They have all been beaten out of me. Head wrangler Ivana lines us all up, the 30 riders, on the last big stretch, a huge meadow, shoulder to shoulder, with all the herd behind us, and then she shouts "Go!"
I kick Hidalgo once and shout "go!" and the monster under me gives two bounces of his signature jackhammer trot and then, gathering up his enormous bulk, flies into full gallop (along with the entire rest of the herd of course).
I have never galloped a horse before.
The arena where I practice is not big enough for a gallop. A horse at full gallop can make 65 mph; we weren't going that fast, but I'll give it 35 anyway.
Of all the four gaits this is the smoothest. It lacks the swing of the walk, the bounce of the trot, the rocking of the canter. There is a tiny rocking motion, hardly detectable. It is all smooth, like silk, the forward motion, and you sense the enormous muscular power of the animal, you almost are that power, as he leaps ahead. Hidalgo's got to weigh 1600 pounds. I was delighted and astonished and terrified. I thought I was going to die. I thought I was going to live.
But horses do have that effect on me.
And so we galloped the herd home.