“That’s only 47, there are three missing,” said Anna. We were riding around in the cool shadow of the rising sun, counting horses at the 7D Ranch in Wyoming. We’d just finished a patrol of the area surrounding the gate of a mountainside pasture, where the majority of the 50-horse herd grazed, nuzzled each other, swatted their tails, and watched us lazily.
We’d given ourselves 2 hours to wrangle the horses back to the ranch before breakfast. Anna, a 7D Ranch hand, knew immediately which three were missing, and that they are part of their own social group, so we knew if we found one, the other two would be close by. We chose a direction and headed off for the ultimate game of hide-and-seek.
I was fortunate enough to grow up riding horses. The ones I knew had lives very different from that of a ranch herd. At English style horse farms in Ohio, each animal has a stall that they live most of their lives in, with maybe an hour on pasture per day being social and an hour being pampered and ridden. Our attention was on grooming, stall cleaning, feed and supplement decisions, and horse show schedules. Sixteen year old me would have been appalled that ranch horses would be left out overnight, every night with hazards like mountain scree slopes, fast moving rivers, and even grizzly bears, and that they’d be moved as herds, with the potential to step in badger holes or hurt each other as they make their way from pasture to ranch every morning, and from ranch to pasture every night.
Now, as an almost-middle-aged ranch guest on a vacation with the in-laws, I guess I see things differently. Growing up, I was one of those straight-A students who would do anything to please anyone. I am earnest and introverted by nature, which makes it hard to know what ‘fun’ is even supposed to be or how to have it. Fast-forward a few decades and it’s still the same old me, craving to be different while needing to be the same. I tried sneaking out of the house and smoking cigarettes and piercing my body. Then it was about going climbing and avoiding a career and any other responsibilities. Now, as I settle into a real job, a house and marriage, we spend far more time working, training, cooking, cleaning and hosting than I care to admit. I sometimes feel too scarily like those horses in stalls; hygienic, regimented, predictable and comfortable.
The balance I now think I crave is to do work I feel good about, yet still take risks and be impulsive, even as my frontal lobe matures and tells me not to. So I’ve promised to forgive myself when the garden gets weedy, when a friendship goes untended, when a niece or nephew’s birthday party is missed or when a career opportunity gets lost, because I know that my instincts have me tending to each of these things most of the time. I have to actually work much harder these days to challenge my own nature and to more often be the missing herd animal, off with my friends finding the best grass and forgetting everything else.
As Anna and I continued our hunt that morning, transitioning out of the shadow and into the soft, warm morning light, we saw, way off in the distance, in a field of the freshest, greenest grass, within the fence line of the neighbor’s property, three horses. Anna noticed that the gate was open: they were our three missing ones, grazing where they weren’t supposed to be. We laughed as we trotted down to them, and pretend-scolded them as we wrangled them back towards the main herd.