Green, wide open pastures fringed by low mountains unfurled before me. And sky, so much sky. The skyscrapers, loud traffic, and raucous smells of New York City had melted away and here I was, in Big Sky Country: Montana. It’s amazing how true that moniker was, I thought to myself as I stared up at that day’s September sky, which was bright blue, but full of fluffy white clouds and one huge grey one rolling overhead. It looked vaguely ominous, but none of the ranch hands, decked out in cowboy hats (and not the kind just for show!) and dirty boots seemed concerned.
I asked myself again why I had signed up for this particular activity — cattle herding on horseback — when it involved one of the things I feared most: riding a horse. I was at Paws Up, a luxury ranch in Montana, and I could have spent the day doing any number of other things: soaking in my hot tub on the porch of my cabin, getting another epic massage inside the spa tents, learning archery, going on an ATV ride, or fly-fishing on the Blackfoot River. But instead, I’d chosen to ride a horse, something I hadn’t done for 15 years. And even then, it didn’t involve cattle, it had just been a short and easy ride. I couldn’t help thinking of my mother, who had been kicked by a horse as a teenager. She came out of it fine, but whenever the thought of being close to a horse — let alone riding one — came up, that image always entered my mind. But what kind of travel writer would I be if I said no to these types of opportunities? How could I turn down the chance to experience herding cattle with cowboys in Montana? I couldn’t.
“I’m here for the cattle herding,” I said to the woman in charge, somewhat shakily.
“I’m Jackie Kecskes, the Equestrian Manager here at Paws Up,” she said with an outstretched hand. “How experienced of a rider are you?”
“Um,” I trembled, “I’m not really…at all. And I’m pretty nervous. Should I still do this?”
“Of course! Don’t worry, we’ll show you what to do.”
I breathed a sigh of a relief. A few other participants began to join us by the horses, mostly older couples who’d probably been riding horses their whole lives, I thought.
Jackie led me over to a tall white horse with a smattering of grey speckles. “This is Pickles,” she said. “He loves to be rubbed between his ears.”
Pickles! My hearts leapt: I had a childhood pet parakeet named Pickles. I was instantly put at ease, I rubbed Pickles the horse between his ears and whispered, “We’re going to get along fine, Pickles. Just don’t go too fast, okay?”
Jackie helped me into the saddle, fitting my feet into the stirrups. I felt stiff and awkward, but rubbing Pickles’ head kept me calm. Once everyone was on his or her horse, Jackie mounted hers and strode in front of us for a quick lesson. I tried to pay attention to how to sit, use my legs, and when and how to pull the reins.
“The horse is only going to do what you tell it to do,” said Jackie. “So if you tell it to go forward at a trot, by using your legs like this,” she demonstrated, “that’s what it will do. It’s just going to follow your directions.”
I’d somehow already forgotten which way to pull the reins for turning left and right and how hard to yank if I wanted Pickles to slow down. But suddenly the other horses were on the move and we were going toward the pasture. I pictured Pickles galloping ahead across the field and into the mountains. I whispered gently that he was a good boy, as he nonchalantly trotted in line with the others.
We made our way to a large pen that had three sections, where a group of horned cows and bulls, some with spots and some solid black or caramel brown, sat in the mud. I guess they thought it was going to rain too.
Jackie told us we needed to separate the males from the females and get each group into a separate pen. She demonstrated how to get our horses behind the cattle we wanted and steer it into its pen. We would take turns and see who could separate them the fastest. I had no illusions about winning, but it seemed easy enough. Well, Jackie made it look easy anyway.
An older Canadian woman went first. She approached a female cow from the side and gently nudged her with her horse’s nose. The cow seemed to know the drill at least, and ambled over to the pen, with the horse close behind. A few stubborn cattle didn’t want to go as directed, but eventually they all did and were sorted. Jackie released the cattle and then it was my turn.
“All right Pickles, let’s show ’em what we got,” I whispered, feeling my insuppressible competitive side come out. I steered him toward a friendly looking brown cow, who obediently allowed us to coax her to her pen. And then another followed. Even the bulls were cooperating. And I felt more and more comfortable, and dare I say, confident.
Suddenly, I was going backwards. Why was Pickles trotting backwards?!
“Help!” I shouted.
“Stop pulling the reins!” yelled Jackie. And I did, or I thought I did. But we continued going backwards still. I could hear Jackie yelling something, and some other people, too. I yanked on the reins, tensed my legs, and we came to a stop. My breath came in short gulps and I felt myself being angry at Pickles. It was his fault! Why did he do that?
“Are you okay?” asked Jackie. “You were pulling the reins back and up. That tells Pickles to go backwards. He was only doing what you told him.”
She was right, of course. I had been pulling the reins back. I don’t know how or why I started to do that and in my panic I couldn’t stop. I took a deep breath and convinced myself to continue my sorting. Pickles was perfect, of course.
After we’d each had a turn (needless to say, I didn’t get the fastest time), it was time to take the cattle back to the field. We gathered behind the cows and bulls to herd them out of the pen and down a long dirt road that opened up to the pasture. The animals fanned out and we followed on horseback, trotting around and behind them. As I looked around me, at the big blue sky that had cleared up and the vast plains and mountains beyond, I smiled. Pickles and I had survived, and I felt confident enough to make sure every cow and bull was accounted for by looking for their ear tags as we rode between them before returning to the stables.
That night, after having had my fill of premium cuts of steak (when in Montana…you eat meat, even if you spent all day tending to cows), I settled in by the nightly bonfire, joined by other guests and ranch hands like Jackie. My back ached, and my legs were sore, but I felt good — much better than the way I feel after sitting at a computer all day. As we traded our herding stories like badges of honor, I knew I’d return to cattle country someday, ready to only move forward.
Photography: The Resort At Paws Up and Shulamit Seidler-Feller.