I have a theory: If you really want to know if you’re compatible with someone…take them camping. I learned this theory works on horses, too. I’d been invited to participate in an Idaho Mounted Orienteering (IMO) race on Ola Summit. Being navigationally challenged, I didn’t have much going for me. I could not read a map and the only thing I knew about a compass was that it pointed mostly north…most of the time.
I had purchased a young horse less than a week prior to the IMO ride. I knew little about her. I was fairly confident the little sorrel mare had never been camping let alone high-lined, confined in a portable electric fence or hobbled. I figured if my camping theory worked on humans it could work on horses, too. I accepted the invitation as a way to hone my navigational skills and get to know my new horse; a chunky, Doc O’Lena sorrel mare I call J’Lo.
I woke early Friday morning to prepare for the weekend. The morning grass felt cool beneath my toes. My tired eyes came in and out of focus as I pressed the palms of my hands into the sockets. An ethereal creature walked toward me as I stood on the ditch bank in my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle PJ’s and irrigation boots. I rubbed my eyes again. Yep – that’s a horse alright. A waspy grey and white paint filly floated toward me. Her hooves seemed never to touch the ground. A long white mane cascading like a fine cloud of mist fell a foot past her shoulder. I expected to see a golden horn protruding from her forehead. I shut the gate behind her as she followed me into the yard.
I called my neighbors to see if anyone was missing a horse. When that proved futile, I called the Sheriff’s office and let them know that I would leave the horse in my pasture over the weekend. If anyone called looking for her, they could pick her up there. It was safer for her than wandering the roads and train track.
J’Lo, who had been with me less than a week, quickly staked claim to “her pasture.” She let the filly know exactly who was boss around these parts. She didn’t have to hurt her. The filly understood perfectly well and followed J’Lo around the pasture from a safe distance. She was well cared for and friendly. I was confident she would be gone before I got home from the IMO ride.
I was packed and ready to roll by the designated meeting time of two o’clock PM. I’d meet Dusty and Joanie at Park Street and follow them to the IMO ride. The couple had been IMO members for 18 years. I was excited to learn from them and looked forward to a weekend in the hills with friends.
As excited as I was to try out my new horse, I could not help but wish I had Jack for this ride. Jack excels in the mountains. I know what he is capable of and I trust him to carry me safely over any type of terrain. He is big, strong and predictable. I trust him to act sensible in most any situation. I knew little of J’Lo. Would her unshod feet hold up? Could she pack me up and down hills without stumbling? How would she do on the trail with other horses? Would she take the lead if needed? Would she willingly leave other horses and go on her own? How would she react to deer, bears, cougars or heaven forbid llamas? These questions and others were exactly why I had chosen to leave Jack with my son to use on the ranch for 30 days while I got to know my new horse. I patted her on the butt and sent her into the trailer. “This is it girl, let’s see what you got.”
Perfect timing; I pulled out of the Park Street RV dump and fell in behind Joanie and Dusty as they slowed on Hwy 95 past Park Street. We stopped at Maverick in Payette to top of the tanks before swinging northeast toward Emmett on Hwy 55. I held my breath passing the Triangle at the junction of 55 and 52. I’d been pulled over here twice by the state brand inspector. I had all my ducks in a row then; not true today. J’Lo was yet to receive my iron and lifetime brand inspection. It freaks me out to think they might impound my horse. I wondered if I could pull out the “tears card” if I did get stopped; something that never worked for me in the past. Instead of looking sad and vulnerable like an endearing cocker spaniel – I look like a leaky, puffed up cabbage patch doll in need of an epinephrine injection.
I exhaled a sigh of relief when Joanie signaled right on FS Rd. 644/High Valley Road. I pulled out the IMO flyer for an idea of the distance yet to travel on this curvy, washboard of a road. The turnoff to the IMO camp was somewhere between 5 and 17 miles. Not only could I not read a map – I wasn’t exactly fluent at written directions, either.
The road climbed and climbed. The temperature gauge on my old Dodge matched the ascent. Less than three miles into the climb and the trucks console turned into an array of warning bells, whistles and flashing lights to put a carnival ride to shame. The smell of coolant permeated the cab. I searched for a flat, shady spot to pull over and shut down. Coolant boiled and hissed from the radiator. This old truck wasn’t going anywhere for a while. I wandered around in circles trying to pick up enough signal to send Joanie a text: “Overheating. Pulling over.”
I calculated I was somewhere between one and fifteen miles from the IMO staging area. I could either sit here for a few hours while the truck cooled, or not. I chose not. What better way to get to know your new horse than to saddle them up in the middle of nowhere for a destination to who-knows-where and ride for who-knows- how-far. I sent Joanie another text: “Saddled and heading your way while the truck cools.” A notification of an incoming text arrived shortly after hitting the send button. It was from Joanie: “Turn on your heater. Waiting at the turnoff” I wish I had thought of that earlier. I was already in the saddle and committed to this leg of our adventure. I’d keep it tucked away for future reference.
I flagged over a truck and trailer. The two ladies were IMO participants. They knew Joanie and Dusty and would let them know I was on my way. They didn’t think the turnoff to basecamp was more than a couple miles.
Another belated text from Joanie came in as I entered in and out of service: “Leaving the turnoff, will see if we can find a gator.” I wasn’t sure what good a gator was going to do me or even if they could find one this far west of the Bayou. I hoped it was a friendly gator if they did find one.
J’Lo didn’t hesitate. She threw her powerful hindquarters into the steep pull. I let her pick her way. Nothing files down horses hooves faster than pea-gravel. She minced her way as close to the dirt edge as possible. Cars and four wheelers came around blind corners in both directions passing uneventfully by the calm mare.
We came to a dirt road forking left off the main road. Perfect time to realize I left the map and directions in the truck. No matter, I couldn’t read them anyway. I followed the dirt road for a bit looking for signs of traffic; nothing bigger than a four wheeler had been over it in some time. We trotted back to the main road and proceeded on.
A picnic plate with “IMO” and an arrow drawn in black marker pointed to Joanie and Dusty strolling up the right hand fork. I squeezed J’Lo into a trot. They had their dogs, Dealer and Savanah, with them. No alligator in sight…they must have left it back at the trailers.
I tied J’Lo to Dusty and Joanie’s trailer while they introduced me to the IMO folks that had arrived so far. Evelyn, the ride organizer, lent us her side-by-side “gator” to go after my truck and trailer. The boiling and hissing had ceased by the time we reached my abandoned rig. I cranked up the heater per Joanie’s advice and climbed the remaining 2 miles to IMO basecamp.
J’Lo respectfully centered herself in the portable corral. Her senses tuned to the sound and smell of current flowing through the electrified tape. I watched her closely the first few hours. Her hyperactive tail switched at pesky flies. I saw it coming and braced myself for the launch. She had backed to within tail-switching reach of the hot tape. Her tail reached out like a frog’s tongue nabbing a bug and wrapped around the hotwire pulling the tape against her ample backside. All four hooves came off the ground in one startled snort. She whirled and faced me with accusing eyes. “Don’t look at me, horse. I didn’t do it!” I chuckled.
Joanie gave me a quick rundown of how this whole IMO thing worked. You are given a topo map of the area showing the general location of five markers. You ride to each marker using the map. When you arrive at the marked area, you follow clues on the back of the map corresponding to the specific marker. The clues point to two bearing points which in turn point to an IMO “plate” marked with an ID number. You ride in teams. One person takes one bearing, the other the second. Once you find the plate – you record the number and race to the next location on the map. It is a timed event. You are racing against other teams. Our initial goal was to leisurely walk the course and find all five markers. Somewhere over the next 24 hours we lost sight of our initial goal.
Joanie and I pooled our dinner resources. She boiled hotdogs and I made a quick batch of what I call cheater beans: A can of pork and beans and chili mixed together. Cheater beans are simple to make and taste like you slaved over a hot stove for hours. Chips, dip and various beverages topped off our dinner.
So far I was impressed with my new horse. She did not balk when I asked her to set out on our own when my truck broke down. She watched where she put her feet and tolerated the gravel road without complaint. She didn’t spook at oncoming traffic or passing ATV’s that seldom slowed down. She took the hotwire fence in stride and didn’t end up in Parma when it bit her in the bee-hind. I wiped bug-spray around her soft, gentle eyes and ran my hand down her broad white blaze. “If you’re still here by morning girl…I guess I’ll keep you.”
A truck stopped on the road in front of our camp. The driver leaned heavily out the window. “There’s gonna be 300 head of cattle coming through this camp tonight.” He warned. “Might spook your horses –thought I’d let you know.” He drove off without further ado. Cows…fantastic. I had no idea how J’Lo was going to react to 300 cows wandering through camp. Heck, I wasn’t sure how well I’d react!
Later in the evening cattle began wandering through camp in small groups of a dozen or two. We made a human barrier to prevent the cattle from wandering directly into camp. J’Lo’s pen sat front and center. She never lifted her head as cattle filtered by throughout the evening.
Evelyn handed out the maps Saturday morning. Joanie, Dusty and I comprised the “Circle 4 Ranch” team. We were signed up to ride at 9:00AM. We studied the map and decided on the best route. We would hit markers in the order of 1, 4, 2, 3 and 5. You could run the course any direction you wanted. I was excited – I love treasure hunts and trail rides. This sport combined the two. What I didn’t count on was the unfamiliar competitive streak lurking within.
Marker 4 was fairly easy to find. A pile of rocks on a culvert marked one bearing and a flagged pine tree marked the second. The numbered plate hung from the center of a tangled mass of brush. We recorded the number and set out for marker number two.
Number two, according to the topo line contours – sat on top of a ridge about 1.5 miles as the crow flies. As impressive as J’Lo was to this point, I was certain she would not be sprouting wings anytime soon. We long trotted the straight stretches stopping ever so often to verify with the map. We came to a T about ¾ of the way into the second marker. “Gator” tracks lay beneath a splattering of hoof tracks leading down to the north trail. The trail heading south showed less evidence of traffic. Another team had arrived at the T. There was much discussion as to which was the right trail. Dusty and I wanted to head north; Joanie south. The other team was split as well. I couldn’t see the tiny lines on the map well enough to make a decision either way. I favored the trail north because of the tracks. Turns out – you have to be careful following such a line of logic. This was more than a sport of navigational skill. It was a sport of strategy and trickery; of who could fool who into going the wrong direction. It was a game not only between members of opposite teams – but between teams and the course organizer. Had Evelyn laid those gator tracks to throw us off course? Had a previous team doubled back on the north trail to fool us into thinking it was the right one? Another team rode up from the north trail. Their faces showed hints of discouragement. Dusty and I whirled our horses and followed Joanie up the south trail leading to marker number three.
Several teams searched for the clues to the bearings pointing to plate number two at the top of a scenic ridge. Team members exchanged discrete signals before slipping away to the next marker. If a member of your team found a plate – you didn’t want to alert the opposing teams. Joanie and Dusty exchange “the look” as we drifted over the north side of the ridge and due east to marker number three.
Dusty set his compass at 50° from the flagged half-dead bush on the upper road. Joanie and I set ours for 236° from the big rock with the white quartz stone on it next to the barricade boulder. The bearing lines paralleled each other. That’s not right. Evelyn later apologized for transposing the numbers on 236°. I thought it made it more fun. Everyone had the same obstacle to overcome and the plate was discoverable using the one bearing. We were off to the last marker on our route – number five.
Number three to number five was the longest stretch of the day. It ran northwest, across three drainages and shared a section of common trail with number four. We picked up the pace and alternated between a long trot and an easy lope. Joanie and I noticed a possible shortcut at the third drainage. A trail leading straight down from number five disappeared at the head of the ravine where we stood. Was it an error on the map or did the trail really disappear? I pointed J’Lo up the ravine and followed what might be considered a game trail if you used your imagination. J’Lo stuck her nose on the ground and pushed her way through brush. It wasn’t worth taking the time to find out if we could bushwhack our way to the top. I emerged with scratches across my arms, face and belly. Our team opted against the shortcut and continued on the dirt road.
The sounds of barking voices, four wheelers and bawling cattle preempted a large herd coming at us from around a blind corner. We scurried to find a place to move off the road for them to pass. We did not move fast enough for a rather upset woman sprawled across a four-wheeler. The revving ATV engine was no match for the woman’s lung capacity. “GET THOSE @#$%@ @#$%! #$ HORSES OF THE @#%$! #$@!! #$ ROAD YOU STUPID @#$% @!!” I feared the woman might stroke out at any moment. Dusty, Joanie and I lunged the horses up a steep hillside and watched the herd pass below us. Another team assessing the situation followed suit. We looked down on the herd as they passed out of site…the irate woman’s string of expletives faded into the canyon.
Some of these folks take their sport mighty serious. The opposing team wasted no time diving off the hillside in pursuit of marker number five. Dusty hastily followed on Zeke, his Arabian gelding. Joanie followed on her big morgan, Honor, and me on J’Lo. Honor was not happy to watch his pasture mate bound off the hillside without him. Taking the easy way down would take too long for the powerful horse. Honor leapt sideways down a 20 foot embankment parallel with the hillside. Joanie centered herself in the saddle, closed her eyes and yelled “Honor!” I wanted to close my eyes, too. It didn’t look at all like it was going to end well. To the relief of all concerned, Honor landed upright in the road and bounded after Zeke without missing a beat. J’Lo and I scurried down a less treacherous descent and raced after our teammates.
We rounded a corner at a fast trot. The vocal woman who had yelled at us earlier popped up from the bushes beneath the road. I could hear another voice coming from behind a thick wall of leaves. “I can’t get out…I’m stuck!” The disgruntled woman paced up and down the brush presumably looking for a place to enter the fortress of leaves and rescue her girlfriend. “Stay right there – don’t move. I’m coming!” She blustered. Apparently, the gal in the bushes had either run off the road or gone in after a cow and got stuck. Whatever occurred – I might be going to hell for laughing out loud. I asked over my shoulder if she was ok and if they needed help. The threatening look she threw me didn’t reveal an answer to either of my questions. I squeezed J’Lo into a gallop and put a safe distance between us.
The pace had picked up considerably. I loped alongside Dusty and Zeke. I heard Dusty say something about the opposing team that seemed to disappear in front of us. I took the comment to mean he wanted to catch up with them. Far be it from me to hold back the team! I gave J’Lo her head and the race was on. Hooves pounded the earth as we ducked around brush and under limbs. I’d glanced back under my arm to see a low hanging limb, evaded by the rider behind me, await its victim in the next.
We reigned to a panting, sweaty stop in front of a green gate – the wrong green gate. In our haste we overshot the trail to marker number five, which also explained why we had not caught the other team. Joanie and Dusty quickly assessed our error. We spun around and fled back down the trail, passing marker number four on our way to our last marker, marker number five.
Several teams drifted through thick brush and pines in search of two bearing points. If they were trying to fake us out, they were doing a good job of it. Everyone looked equally perplexed in their search. Joanie and I studied the map. The yellow marker on the map sat in a dog leg section of the trail that double-backed to the south. The teams were not looking far enough into the dog-leg. Joanie’s map reading reputation precedes her. Opposing teams made a bee-line after Joanie into the dog-leg.
We recorded our final plate ID at marker number five and sped back down the home stretch. The Circle 4 Ranch team clocked out in sixth place finding all five markers in 3 hours, 54 minutes and 24 seconds. Not too shabby for a navigationally challenged IMO newbie who intended to walk the course riding an unfamiliar horse.
I hung the camera strap around my neck and set out to stretch my legs and take my dog for a walk. I didn’t make it far from camp when a pick-up pulling a stock trailer pulled up next to me. Concern emanated from the drivers face. “Ma’am…we’re sorry to bother you – but would you have any water to spare? We have a very sick calf in here and there isn’t any water up here.” He was right. It was a dry camp. There was water in some of the drainages – but those weren’t accessible pulling a big rig. The IMO flyer was specific in telling everyone to bring water for the weekend. I had a 30 gallon tank in my trailer. “Yes – I have plenty of water.” I said. I pointed to my trailer across the way and signaled them to follow.
I filled my rubber bucket with water and handed it to one of the hands. “Thank you, thank you. You are a sweetheart, darlin! Thank you so much!” The younger cowhand repeated over and over. You would have thought I’d offered a dying man his last drink. The 250lb calf wheezed heavily as he slurped at the water. “What’s wrong with him?” I asked. The rancher called it sudden pneumonia. He said the hot days and cold nights bring it on and asked if I knew how cold it got last night. I said it felt like the low 40’s in my camper. I told him I had butte and Banamine but didn’t know if that would work on cattle. He said he gave him a shot of Nuflor and if anything was going to work, that should.
Then the strangest thing – he looked right at me and asked me what else I think we should try. I stressed again that I didn’t know anything about cattle and looked at him as if he’d lost his mind for asking. I looked for a hint of sarcasm or jest in his kind face. He was genuinely interested in my opinion. What the hell…that never happens. “Well,” I said. “If he were a goat or a horse, I think I’d want to get him on his feet as soon as possible. I think I heard that cattle will die if they lay down too long, is that right?” He nodded, “Yes – that is right. They can bloat.” While the calf was not lying on his side – he wasn’t exactly upright either. I asked if he thought we could get him up. The rancher replied, “Reach on in there and see what you can do.”
The calf struggled to stand. It took two tries before he managed to get to his feet. A big grin spread across the young cowhands face. “Well, would you look at that!?” he grinned. I asked if they thought the calf would make it. The rancher looked at me with simplistic sincerity that comes from a man who’s lived life by the sweat of his brow and the strength of his shoulders. “He has a chance now, thanks to you. If there is anything at all we can do for you – anything you want, it’s yours.” Holy cow – I fell in love right there in the back of the stock trailer. All I could think to say was: “Well, if you see my horse running down the road in the middle of the night, you might return her.” What that had to do with the price of tea in China, I have no idea – but that’s what came out of my absurdly socially challenged head at that particular moment. Smooth…really smooth.
I continued on my walk hoping to snap a picture of the bear one of the gals had spotted earlier. I’d turned toward camp thinking it was about time for the potluck. I met the rancher with the calf on his way to where they were parked. He stopped the truck and leaned out the window smiling. I asked if the calf was still standing. “Crawl on up there and check it out.” He said. Sure enough – the calf was still standing. I gave the thumbs up and smiled back.
They invited me over to meet the rest of the crew helping to move cattle. I was introduced to a lady from somewhere I can’t remember and her nephew from Texas. A nod and the expected drawl of “Ma’am” preceded a handshake from the tall Texan. I turned to shake the next hand and came face to face with the large and angry woman we met on the trail earlier. She half grunted something before turning away. Apparently her disposition had not improved over the last two hours.
A skinny arm darkened from hours in the hot sun reached out to shake my hand. Our eyes met…almost. One eye went one way while the other shot off in the opposite direction. Her eyeballs rolled to a stop eventually settling somewhere in the middle…ish. She introduced herself without a hint of humor: “Names not important – people call me knucklehead.” What do you say to an introduction like that? “Nice to meet you….knu..uh..nice to meet you?” I seriously said it as more of a question than a statement. I lay my bet on this gal being the one stuck in the bushes earlier.
I bade fare-well to my future husband (I don’t care if he did have a wife and 18 grandkids) and headed back to camp shaking my head. “Man, you just can’t make this shit up.”
I missed the passing out of trophies. Joanie handed me one of my very own: a metal cutout off a horse and rider mounted on a block of wood. I don’t care if it was sixth place or sixteenth place – it was my first trophy ever and I’d won it fair and square.
Most of the IMO riders left Saturday evening after the potluck. Dusty and I decided to move the horses’ portable corrals to grassier areas. This put J’Lo farther from the others; in hindsight, probably not a good idea.
When I woke Sunday morning, J’Lo was still in her pen. She seemed nervous so I tossed her some hay even though she was belly deep in lush grass. I went back to bed convinced she was pacified. About an hour later, I heard the pounding hooves of a loose horse.
J’Lo ran to me expecting me to save her from whatever horse eating creature lurked in the forest. It was as good a time as any to see how she took to high-lining. I secured a high-line next to the other horses, hooked J to it and went about picking up the portable corral she’d knocked down.
A group of cowboys dismounted outside my trailer. Was that my rancher? I made a futile attempt to smooth my bed-head hair and straighten my flannel PJ’s. I jumped expectantly out of my camper. It wasn’t my future husband after all. “What can I do for you?” I asked in a tone sounding more disappointing than I intended. Another hundred head of cattle would be touring our campsite in an hour. I thanked him for the warning and let him know we had it covered. At this point we were experts in cattle diversion.
Joanie was sitting at her trailer when I finished breakfast. “Did you hear all the commotion?” she asked. I said I heard some dogs barking earlier and wondered if that wasn’t what scared my horse. “Those were bear dogs!” She said. “They scared a bear right through our camp! If I hadn’t moved my chair he would have ran over me! He ran around the camper, somersaulted to a stop when he saw the horses and ran into the trees…right over there!” She pointed. “He was a big one! I thought it was a moose at first!” Joanie’s eyes were as big around as J’Lo’s butt! I asked how the horses reacted. She said they got a little excited but she was able to talk them down. I looked over at J’Lo, yep, she’s a keeper.
Shortly after the last cattle run of 2015, we saddled up for a short, uneventful ride before breaking camp. I was glad Joanie had invited me. I learned a little about navigation and the sport of mounted orienteering. I discovered I possessed a fair amount of competitiveness that had laid dormant most of my life. Most important of all, I got to know my new horse better and if I had to guess – I’d say my new horse got to know a bit about me, too.