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Ask Now the Beasts: Our Kinship with Animals Wild and Domestic Excerpt from Ask Now the Beasts: Our Kinship with Animals Wild and Domestic

by Ruth Rudner




ace

Ace and I lead a line of twelve guests on horseback up Pelican Valley on a clear Yellowstone day, a day of crystal air. The water in Pelican Creek sparkles. Sandhill cranes ride the length of the sky, their ululating as primeval as the place. Scattered across the valley, small groups of buffalo graze tall, yellowing grass, the grass barely moving in the calm noon.

Our trail follows the edge between meadow and forest. Grass on both sides of the trail is almost as high as Ace's chest. This is familiar territory to him and he walks comfortably, knowing we will come to camp with good pasture before many more miles have elapsed. The three mules behind us -- Buck, Sis, and Festus -- are just as much at home. All the horses are. I watch the forest for movement -- a grizzly bear, a wolf, a deer. Twice in the past, when a deer appeared out of nowhere as we rode through forest, Ace reared and bolted, reacting to the sudden appearance of a creature erupting into his vision. Twice I had dropped the rope to the mules so that I could freely turn him and calm him and get him back into his place in line. Dropping the rope is not ideal, because the mules can wander off, but it beats getting the rope wrapped around something -- Ace's leg or my arm or any number of other things -- in the mercurial movements of the horse and my own focused attention on getting the situation settled.

Those moments apart, Ace is a good lead horse. He is strong and agile and he knows the Yellowstone trails as intimately as I know the rooms in my house. But horses are' prey animals. In their genes, they are always wary. Unexpected things scare them. So I have learned to watch for those things, to see them first, before Ace does.

That's how it is in my mind -- until this trip. A grizzly appears near the trail and I am not the first to see it. I do not even suspect its presence until Ace simply stops in his tracks, ears up, forward, his whole body alert, like a dog on point. Fifty feet ahead of us, a row of grass moves like a wave from the meadow up to the trail. A two-year-old grizzly emerges from it, crosses the path, and continues toward the forest. He crosses the path without looking at us, as if we were nothing on his morning errands. For an instant, I can see his back as he moves through the grass. I think he might circle back to the trail. I think there might be a Mama Bear somewhere who will follow him through the high grass and across the path. Bears usually stay with their mothers for two years, before setting off on their own. When Ace stops and I hold up my hand, the riders behind me take out binoculars and cameras, but the bear disappears in the grass, so all any of us can see is a line of grass moving until a wind comes up and all the meadow grass moves. I do not see him enter the forest, but when no sow appears, and he does not reappear in a reasonable time, we ride on, although I suggest to the outfitter that perhaps he would like to ride lead for a while.

I am quickly sorry about this momentary lapse into my basic cowardice, because I like it when Ace and I lead. I like the feeling that only the two of us -- and, of course, my mules -- are out there, that we are in wild country on our own and that, between us, we can deal with anything. The grandness of companionship Ace offers me gives me courage. As if the two of us could do anything. All good trail horses offer this. (Other horses do, too, but I don't have experience with hunters and jumpers or other, more civilized horse events.) This companionship with the horse is why a backcountry pack trip is so extraordinary for anyone who gets as involved with the horse she or he rides as with the landscape. You share an adventure. Shared experience -- felt in the rider the same way the horse feels every movement of the riders body, every emotion, every thought in the riders mind, every waft of air and moment of sun -- seems to me deeper than shared words. The horse may or may not understand the word whoa, but he will certainly react to the way you sit. Words used to translate an experience make the experience secondhand, a superficial event. But if things are superficial between you and your horse, at least one of you is in trouble. The beauty of a horseback trip is that whatever happens to one of you happens to you both.

And there is only what happens. What happens is always in the present moment. The miracle of relationship with a horse, a dog, any animal is the necessity to be present this moment. (Same thing with a person, but it's harder to do. People like to hitch themselves to words. Animals attend to what exists.) What Ace and I share is in each moment we share. Wildflower meadows and noon sun; cool streams on a hot day; cold, wet, long rides; cloudbursts; dawn; and all forty-five billion stars of all forty-five billion universes. We have negotiated fast, high streams and eased the mules safely around tight places. We have been tired together, grateful for trail's end. We have shared apples and time and a lot of miles. I know how his muscles and his strength and his awareness feel without a saddle or with. He knows how I ride and what I expect and how I love him. He knows there are places that scare me, and that he does not scare me. I know he can handle the places that scare me. He knows I can handle him. We work well together.

Copyright © 2006 Ruth Rudner