In the wise words of André 3000, “You can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather.” Kristen Kovatch recounts the harrowing tale of riding through a surprise Wyoming storm.
Everyone everywhere loves to believe that their particular location has the wackiest weather. A popular saying around here is “Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes!” I’ve also heard that phrase used to describe not just western New York but various parts of New England, Wyoming, Montana, and Scotland. Being completely spoiled with a heated indoor, there’s not much that we need to worry about regarding the weather at the university where I teach—we just shut the doors down tight and hope the snow and ice on the roof doesn’t spook any of the horses too badly. If it’s really cold out, we might turn the heat on. We’re resigned to the fact that we won’t get to use the outdoor rings much until April, maybe, and the trails? Forget it. We’re not alone in this fact, though, no matter how much we’d like to think we’re pretty unique regarding the weather.
The northwestern corner of the great state of Wyoming isn’t too different either—I worked at an elevation of 7,500 feet for five summers on a working guest ranch and the weather there changed rapidly and severely: one day we’d be riding in bright sunshine stripped down to a long-sleeve shirt and the next we’d be layered up with scarves up to our eyeballs in driving snow. Rarely did we cancel a trail ride—we simply bundled up or stripped down, packed extra water or extra gloves depending on the conditions. Going to the indoor wasn’t an option: the horses lived out and we worked out. Weather was a way of life in Wyoming, not an external inconvenience.
It took a few weeks to adjust from the lifestyle of an East Coast stable to a western ranch—on a gusty windy day, I would settle myself nervously into the saddle, waiting for my mount to jig sideways or be uneasy in the breeze. For these horses, however, who lived in these conditions all the time without roofs or walls to protect them, the elements were nothing to worry about. Getting caught in snow or rain simply meant turning tail and standing together—a fact that was disconcerting to our guests when their horses all suddenly stopped and turned around and refused to move, choosing instead to wait out precipitation. These horses were hardy and in tune with their environment, and gradually we as staff learned to be the same way.
I got into the habit of scanning the western horizon as we climbed out of the ranch valley on each ride in the hotter days of the summer. Dark clouds there always preceded the nasty pop-up thunderstorms with their lightning, wind, rain and hail—but from the protected river valley where we mounted each ride, it was impossible to see them coming until they were already arrived. If I saw a thunderstorm approaching, it became a gamble to see if I could fit in my entire planned ride, cut it short, or turn around and head home. Poor judgment could mean either a group of guests sitting in bright sunshine at the lodge wondering why I turned around when the storm missed us all along—or worse, being trapped in the high country with nowhere to hide, at the mercy of our horses to bring us home.
The horses continued to surprise me summer after summer. On one such day, I kept a constant nervous eye on a wall of black clouds steadily creeping my way from the west, hoping and hoping to be able to finish my ride with a lovely family from Holland, a mother and her two daughters, learning to ride together. We only had a short loop planned, a few places with safe and excellent footing for them to practice their canter before descending back down to the ranch. I wanted them to be able to practice their skills, to enjoy their vacation and feel accomplished as they learned more about riding in this beautiful ranch setting. My own mount was a mare in training that I never really got along well with—she wasn’t quite as fast, spirited, testy or tricky as others, and to me she struck me as simply slightly boring.
We finished our first lovely canter, the girls chattering excitedly about how much fun they were having, their mother pleased that her daughters were pleased, me trying to be happy for them as panic rose slowly in my mind, the thunderhead approaching faster now and lightning illuminating the base from time to time. I urged my mare to the fastest walk she could muster, realizing that it wouldn’t matter since the guests’ horses wouldn’t keep up anyway.
There is a point, hard to define but common to all of us as wranglers, that we would realize that we were going to have a problem on our hands in the very near future that we could not avoid. I felt that moment of realization as I watched the approaching storm, knowing that my job was to get us all home safely without letting my own fear show. I gauged the trail in my mind—we had come 45 minutes out already, and turning around back into the storm wasn’t a good option. I could continue on, except that our trail had yet to climb another few hundred feet to an exposed ridgeline, putting us in more evident danger. The horses, despite the rising wind and dropping temperature, still stepped on gamely, unconcerned by the weather.
“Ladies,” I said finally, knowing I could not deny the weather any longer as thunder rumbled up the valley towards us. “It looks like we’re going to get a little storm. I’m going to take us on a shortcut home, but we’ll have to walk part of the way.”
They all nodded, eyes wide, the happy chatter fading away. At the top of the next hill, I made my decision—rather than continuing on our trail as planned, I believed I had a better shortcut that would give us a little bit of protection for part of the way. I turned to the left and we followed the ridge for a few hundred yards, the storm and valley in full vista below, the rain line visible now and moving rapidly towards us. Lightning flashed and thunder grumbled and I heard the beginning gasps of fear from my guests. It was time now to count on myself and my horses.
We dismounted in a little hollow off the ridge, pulling the reins over the horses’ heads to lead them through a single-file gap between rocks. The rain was falling around us now; my guests had pulled hoods over their helmets but were soon soaked regardless. I kept a smile on my face and kept calling encouragement, silently cursing myself for making this particular call. Surely we’d have been better off following the trail as planned—but now was not the time. The horses followed dutifully, heads bowed into the rain, manes plastered to their necks. Not a single horse sidestepped in fear or pulled away as the rain turned to hail.
As we passed between the rocks and started to wind our way down the exposed side of the hill, the storm hit us full-force, soaking us to the bone with cold, hard rain, small hailstones bouncing off of helmets and saddles, stinging our exposed skin and the horses’ necks and flanks. No one, not horse nor human, complained. The storm spent itself as quickly as it had begun and by the time we were at the base of the hill, just above the ranch, the sun was drying our saddles rapidly. I patted the wet neck of my mount gratefully. I would never really like this horse, but at the moment I loved her.
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.
Kristen & her horse Playgirl