Dale is about 70, tall and skinny, the kind of guy who is so busy smiling while he shovels horse manure that he forgets to eat. Bob, my boyfriend Tor’s dad, went to high school with Dale in Lincoln, Nebraska, back in the mid-60s, and they’re still close friends. I met him two years ago because he went to Yellowstone on a two-day backpacking trip with Bob and Tor and me, the first and last backpacking trip I will ever go on. It wasn’t terrible or anything, but like…I get it. By far (times ten thousand) the best part of the trip was that Dale brought his two horses and one day we went on a long ride up in the hills around our camp.
I rode horses when I was a kid, around a ring, and over a few pretty tame jumps but it’s different out in the world, going for miles, seeing views. Being up high in the middle of all that greenness and vast beauty, on top of a noble and intelligent beast that’s working really hard on your behalf, it’s a pretty deep fucking experience.
When Dale heard I had come to Jackson he called up and asked if I wanted to go riding again. I said I did. He told me to meet him at the kids’ fishing pond, just over the Teton Pass, in Victor, Idaho, and to bring sunscreen, water, and lunch. He said he had bear spray. He said the place where we were going might be crowded, but I said I didn’t mind. When your first experiences of the great outdoors involve Marconi Beach on Cape Cod in August, just carpeted with people, “crowded” has a different meaning than it does for people in the west.
Dale was driving an F-150 painted a sparkling blue, and pulling a big white horse trailer. We left Bob’s Prius in the kids’ fishing pond parking lot and drove about two miles to the parking lot at the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area. On the way Dale reminded me of basic horseback riding stuff. Basically, the horse just knows what it’s doing, and you just have to let it do that.
My horse was Roxy. She’s a black Missouri Fox Trotter. Dale’s horse was Rebel, also a Missouri Fox Trotter, but brown. Missouri Fox Trotters are known for their smooth gait and sure-footedness, Dale told me as he replaced his University of Nebraska baseball hat with a real cowboy hat. I said I wished I had a cowboy hat too, and he confirmed that yes, my floppy straw hat from H&M was terrible. This sounds stupid, but when you ride a horse, you realize that people don’t wear cowboy hats just to be like cowboys. They wear them because they are sturdy.
We hit the trail, and I saw that he was right. I marveled at how these horses picked their way down a hill slippery with stones, how they could stumble on their small, hard feet but always recover. It was particularly amazing watching them traverse a stream, with its large rocks and small ones, its rushing waters and sucking muck. No matter how much effort she expended, Roxy’s head bobbed up and down with the same heartbreaking steadfastness.
We went through green meadows bisected with sparkling streams and along dusty shaded paths. When the ground was level the horses liked to break into a trot which was both fun and hard on the body. “The best part of having a horse isn’t this,” Dale said, holding his arms over his head as our horses trudged along, through a tunnel of lodgepole pine, “It’s the relationship that develops between you, what you realize the horse is willing to do for you.” Dale told me a story about how once he got lost in the White Cloud mountains, off the East Fork of the Salmon River, with a thunderstorm coming. Dale was trying to find a map on his phone, which wasn’t cooperating. Luckily, Rebel knew where he was going. “He just pointed his head down the mountain and went, and we got down no problem, and I didn’t tell him a thing.”
Dale talked the whole time we were riding. I didn’t mind. He used to be the football coach and an English teacher at Skyline High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He retired about eight years ago but still helps out part time. When he’s not working he’s riding. But riding is a new thing for him. He’d always wanted to ride horses. He just loved them, but what was he going to do? He had a wife and kids and a job. It was expensive: You needed land, you needed a horse.
Then, about six years ago, a friend of his got in a terrible car accident. Just before the accident, she had gotten herself a beautiful mare. The mare, which was actually in the trailer when her car was hit, needed to be trained. But Dale’s friend couldn’t do it, because she was in intensive care. She asked if anyone could. Dale said he’d do it.
“Now you understand,” he said to me, as we rode through a field of yarrow—big flat off-white flowers, and us so high above them it was like we were in a plane and they were clouds—“Me saying I could train this horse is like me saying I could perform open-heart surgery.” But he said he could do it, and no one doubted him, or at least no one said so. Maybe being a football coach in a small city in Idaho makes people think you can do things. Dale continued. “I was an educator, so I did the only thing I knew to do—I got a curriculum.”
This was pretty amazing to me. He had never ever in his life trained a horse before and he just went out and got himself a book and did it?
This was, in fact, what happened. “Once you realize horses just do what horses are going to do,” he said, “It gets way easier. Like they’d rather do nothing than do something. They’d rather eat than not eat. They don’t like enclosed spaces. They don’t like things coming over their heads, because it’s like, a mountain lion leaping on them.”
When Dale’s friend came home from the hospital and found that he’d trained that horse, she was so happy she cried. A few months later, another horse belonging to this same woman fell out of a trailer going thirty miles an hour. The people transporting the horse didn’t even realize anything had happened. They went back after driving several miles and found the young horse in a ditch, all cut up. A vet told them that unless someone could clean out its wounds every single day, it should probably be put to sleep. Dale volunteered to take care of it.
The horse had a hole right next to his rectum and and Dale cleaned the pus out of it every day. After two years it was still filling up with pus and Dale kept cleaning it. He asked the vet about it and the vet said it was odd for a wound to last this long, but the horse seemed pretty chipper, so maybe it would get better and maybe it wouldn’t. A year passed, and one day Dale showed up to the property and the horse galloped at him at full speed and then kicked up all four feet in the air. “That’s the first time I knew the horse wasn’t going to die,” he said. A few months later, the pus stopped, after three years. That horse was Rebel. “If you pull his tail up, you can see where the hole was,” Dale said. “I’ll show you later if you want to see.”
The woman ended up giving Rebel to Dale. A few months later, her father, who was a friend of Dale’s, died of cancer. He gave Dale Roxy. After having dreamed of having horses his whole life, at the age of 65, he had now been given two spectacular ones, as well as a place to keep them, and he hadn’t even tried. “Sometimes stuff just happens,” Dale said. “I don’t have to know why.”
We saw a moose to the left through the trees. We saw another moose to the right in a meadow. Horseback riding hurts. After about six or seven miles and I realized that my knee was really truly killing me. I stretched it out, I curled it up. I tried everything. My hip sockets felt like they were made out of glass. Dale didn’t know any of this, though he kept giving me the option to turn around. But I didn’t want to.
We ate lunch near a waterfall. Heights spook me, said Dale. Me too, I said. He got a big log and threw it over the edge and we shivered watching it fall. He told me another story about a kid in his English class about fifteen years ago who told him he was going to fail because he always failed English and Dale said, well you’re not going to fail this class. I asked Dale what happened next. He said that the kid got a B and was now a rodeo clown, which was his dream. Dale ate a can of chicken in barbeque sauce and maybe four small dried sausages. I ate 1/3 of a breakfast burrito and said I thought breakfast burritos were overrated, one of the only opinions I had that day that made it into our conversation. Dale told me how he met his wife. “I was living next door to her and her landlady told her “there’s a nice teacher that lives next door and he’s single.” And his wife said, “I’ve had it with teachers.” And the landlady said, “He’s also a football coach,” and his wife said, “Now I definitely don’t want to meet him.”
We had to walk at the bottom because I just couldn’t go on. We had ridden almost fifteen miles, which is kind of a lot to just go out and ride on the first day of riding. Dale kept apologizing. I said it wasn’t his fault and that I was fine, which was true in the sense that the rather considerable pain I was in somehow seemed to lessen as I walked, somewhat.
He told me the last story of the day, about how he and his friend, Roxy’s former owner, had a plan to ride the horses to a place called Blair Lake after the guy’s chemo was done, but that the chemo ended up making his friend sicker, and he died. Dale went to Blair Lake without him, and brought both Roxy and Rebel. When he reached the lake, Dale stopped, looked out over the view and said a few words aloud to his dead friend. While he was talking, a bald eagle appeared. It perched on a short tree and just stared at Dale. “Just that far away,” Dale said, pointing to a tree right next to us, only fifteen or so feet high. “Just looking right into my eyes.”
Afterwards we brushed the horses for a long time. I was glad to be able to help—taking tack on and off a horse is a little complicated, but brushing is easy. Dale showed me how to go against the grain of Roxy’s sleek coat to flake off the dried sweat accumulated under the saddle and girth. I got it all off. I kept whispering to her that she was a very good girl and that I loved her and that she was very beautiful. It’s important to tell animals you appreciate them.
Dale dropped me off at the kid’s pond and we promised to ride again together soon. I wanted to tell Dale how grateful I was for this experience etc., but I kept it to myself. Fellas from Nebraska don’t need to hear stuff like that!
I could barely walk from the Prius to Bob and Tor’s booth, where they were just closing up after a day of selling furniture in the hot sun. I walked in the grass barefoot and drank a lot of water and also poured it on myself because I felt like I needed that to stay alive. I wanted Advil but there was none to be had and I couldn’t articulate that I was beyond procuring them for myself and someone else would have to do it. They wanted to go to some sort of upscale Mexican place. I said fine. Because this was Jackson, they had a tequila menu. Ordinarily I would have asked the waitress a million tequila questions but when Tor produced four surprise Advil from his pocket, which he got from the lady in the jewelry booth next to them, I knew the house tequila, Camarena, the cheapest one at a very pleasing $6 a glass, would be just the ticket. It tasted like all the white tequilas I have had, because I know nothing about tequila and would perhaps like to keep it that way, as I want every experience of washing down Advil with tequila after horseback riding – an experience I hope to have again – to be just as peaceful and uncomplicated as this one was. I took two Advil with the first Camarena over ice in a nice heavy glass, and the other two with the next one. In the morning my body felt ready to ride again.