Wildfire leaned his head into my hand as I scratched between his ears. That, in itself, isn't remarkable; horses generally enjoy being scratched there. But that was the first time in three days of trail riding in Oklahoma's southeastern mountains that he relaxed enough to respond to any offer of friendship. I think at that point I'd gained his respect, as well.
The first morning I met Wildfire, I could tell we were alike. It was 9:00 a.m., and he sidestepped and moved around nervously as I first approached him for my four-hour ride. Neither of us a morning creature. Neither of us really comfortable about socializing with new people. Neither of us eager to work "in the middle of the night" before noon.
A to Z Guest Ranch owners Andy and Zondra Lewis had already warned me that Wildfire hadn't been ridden much and enjoyed scaring clients who have little riding experience by rearing up just a little. It seems that was something else Wildfire and I had in common; we both have an offbeat sense of humor.
So Andy saddled Wildfire while "Grandma," Zondra's mother, told me more about the 6-year-old horse and his breed, the Morgan Horse. Morgans were originally bred in New England in the 1700s as an all-around farm horse. They have the energy and stamina to easily carry my 228 pounds on the sometimes steep 150 miles of Kiamichi Mountain trails available to the guest ranch. Morgans were also a favorite mount of the United States Cavalry and Pony Express riders. (For more on the Morgan Horse, see "Great American Horse Drive" on page 52.)
Wildfire, feeling snotty, stepped forward as I not-so-nimbly stepped into the stirrup and grunted my way up into the saddle. Not a very athletic mounting, but it'd been at least eight years and 10 added pounds since I had last ridden a horse.
The horse immediately began to test me. I wanted him to go right; he used his 1,000-pounds of muscle to insist on left. I knew I needed to raise my position in the pecking order quickly, or the horse would be bumping my knees against every tree we passed.
Reaching down to his head, I pulled the right side of the bridle to my knee. Horses must go in the direction their nose faces, I've always been taught. It worked! Wildfire deftly spun around to his right. I thought maybe that raised my position in the herd pecking order.
Wildfire wasn't impressed. He tested me for the next four hours.
Every time I tried to relax my overly strained, out-of-shape knees and leg muscles, and lighten my foot pressure in the stirrups, the horse tested my ability to control him, as well as my ability to keep his nose out of the tail of the horse in front, especially the mare, who'd kick at any gelding too close to her.
Seems Wildfire didn't know to space one-horse's length from the horse in front for every increase in gait. Several times, he tried to rear, but I was able to shift my weight forward and usually prevent it. Rearing is easy to sit and quite fun if you know how to lean into it, but not great fun for the next rider who might not have much riding experience. Or maybe I just saw too many television episodes of the Lone Ranger when I was young.
During rest breaks on the trail, the other horses playfully tugged at mouthfuls of green weeds and grasses. My horse stood still and flared his nostrils. And he moved his head away every time I offered a friendly pat on the head or scratch between his ears.
Four hours after the ride started, we'd seen amazing scenery under a sky that's actually crystal blue instead of the milk-chocolate sky that's becoming all too normal in the cities. Wildfire wasn't impressed with the scenery or with me.
After the ride, I took a nap so the aspirin could work its wonders with my aching muscles. I got up about 7:00 p.m., ate a snack and went to bed.
The second morning, I thought maybe Wildfire had begun to respect me a little. I was wrong. He tested me for most of the five-hour ride, including during the heavy rainstorm that pounced upon us from behind the mountain we were riding along.
Fortunately I like rain. And boy did we get it. The horses didn't need to be washed down after the ride, and I considered being in the drenching downpour for two hours my shower and laundry. Lightning knocked out the ranch's telephone service for two days. Wildfire's nostrils continued to flare.
On the third day, Andy went out of town, so Zondra led the rides for the rest of my stay. She took a newlywed couple from McKinney, Texas, and me on an afternoon ride. It was then that Wildfire began to respond a little to my offers of friendship.
The horse may just have been in a good mood and amused watching the new husband, who forgot he was allergic to horses, violently sneeze continuously for the last hour of the 1½-hour ride. I wondered if the poor man realized why I kept Wildfire upwind as I followed along, to the far right of the logging road that served as a trail. The ground was much drier there.
The next morning, the temperatures stayed in the low 70s until past noon. Zondra took me and another newlywed couple from Houston on a ride where loggers had cut down some of the trees marking the trail. Zondra led us in a zigzag pattern looking for the trail under the cut-down foliage. The newlyweds had so much fun that their hour-long ride turned into three hours.
Zondra's Border Collie, Tuffy, who usually kept ahead of us, because he knows the trails, fell in line behind the horses, seemingly saying, "I give up, I don't know where you are going." Tuffy has this way of always looking like he was just playing in every puddle or stream we passed, or lounging in campground roadways, but he's one of the hardest working dogs I've ever seen. On trail rides, he usually moves from side-to-side and in front of the horses, flushing out any wildlife that might scare them. Little chance of a snake scaring a horse on an A to Z trail ride with Tuffy along.
One morning, I awoke to see Tuffy lying on the uncomfortable small stones that made up the campground roadway. It was readily apparent he was lying where he could watch out for everyone there.
Zondra told me stories about Tuffy going out on rides with guests who brought their own horses and blocking the trail when it was time for the riders to return to the ranch, then leading them back.
Relaxing at the Ranch
The Lewises have owned the small guest ranch near Smithville, Oklahoma, for less than a year. They sponsor large rides for people who rent their horses, as well as for people who bring their own horses. Zondra, a trained chef, cooks meals for the events. Everyone is family as far as Andy and Zondra are concerned
There are four cabins, accommodating from two to 17 guests. They're wonderfully decorated inside and very comfortable. I got a warm, fuzzy feeling just touring them.
There are also about 22 campsites, most with small outdoor horse corrals for people to bring their own horses, as well as covered stables and a few campers available for rent.
Towering pine trees shade most of the guest ranch. A rocky stream runs along one side. There's one pay telephone, and the cabins have satellite TV, but other than that, there's no television reception - and Verizon couldn't hear my cell phone now.
One night, the Lewises fed me dinner of fried catfish; homemade, old-fashioned macaroni and cheese; and some of the best iced tea that's ever splashed across my lips. Then a friend of Zondra's came out to the campground on the final evening of my stay and gave me one of the best massages I've ever had for about half the price charged in the city.
It rained almost all day Sunday. Zondra invited me to go to church with her and her mother. Grandma told me she only knew two places in the area, the guest ranch and church. As I looked at the ranch's natural beauty, I thought, What's the difference? I declined formal church services and spent the day just listening to the steady rain pattering on the leaves of the trees.
That was church for me.
Flora and Fauna
The trails feature high mountain ridges with grand views, ponds, rocky streams, and even a small waterfall, which was just a trickle during my visit due to the meager rainfall this year.
But even that trickle was fun to put my head under and drink from the cool, spring-fed water. The soft melody of the wind moving through the pine trees was as soothing as listening to the water trickling through the streams.
Trail riders in the area have reported seeing a black bear, deer, rabbits, and even wild horses that roam the higher elevations. My encounters with the local wildlife included a cottontail rabbit munching on clover, two five-inch long dragonflies dancing on a pond on a mountain ridge with giant bullfrogs eyeing them from the water, and a variety of fish swimming in the streams.
Near the end of my week-long stay, three generations of a family called Zondra and requested an hour-long ride for most of the family, all non-riders. One family member had just returned from military service in Iraq. Zondra was able to provide mounts for nine of them; A to Z only has about 12 horses, besides the ones we were riding.
During that trail ride, Wildfire and I brought up the rear of the column; the family's grandfather rode just ahead of me. At one point, horseflies caused Wildfire to dance in a circle and try to rear up. The grandfather laughed and joked, "Better your horse than mine." I killed the flies with my hand as they buzzed against the horse's neck. Wildfire settled down and let me scratch between his ears as we moved ahead on the trail.
For once, Wildfire was impressed. I had one of the best vacation experiences of my life.