Off the Ground


Smoke was walking a slow circle around me and my eyes were half-closed while a pocket of sun warmed my face. SuzAnne was riding Lonza—asking her to gait, go backwards and walk the plank (a raised platform that’s been sitting in the middle of the arena lately).

SuzAnne and Lonza stopped for a minute and sat quietly.

“You know, there’s a trail ride tomorrow,” SuzAnne said in her matter-of-fact way.

“No I didn’t. I need to pay better attention to the forum.”  I sort of half-yawned as the words rolled out.

“Sarah’s going, Pam’s going, and I’m going.”

“Sounds like fun.”

SuzAnne and Lonza gaited away and Smoke and I kept working at a few things. Later, after I had brushed the natty dread out of his mane—the one that had been there since January—I realized that we were bored.

I popped in to SuzAnne’s office to say goodbye.

“Do you want me to sign you up for that ride?”

“Yes!” I replied.

Although, it was clear that “no” would not have been an option.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE trail rides and truly wanted to go. I’ve just spent so much time on the ground with Smoke in recent months that a trail ride was not in the forefront of my mind. Once SuzAnne put it there however, I was psyched.

The next day, we tacked up the horses, loaded them in the trailer and headed to Larry’s Loop. SuzAnne thought this would be a good early season ride, because the trails were soft and there were gentle inclines. We all needed to ease back in.

As we were getting ready to ride, I realized that I completely forgot to bring Smoke’s bridle along. A lump rose in my throat, and I inwardly chided myself for making such a silly, rookie mistake. I started thinking about how I could loop his lead rope in place of reins and relaxed a little bit, when I remembered that I’d ridden a few times in the arena this way.

“I bet SuzAnne has an extra bridle in the tack room.  People forget all the time.”  Pam’s chirpy voice drifted over, from the other side of Charger.

Sure enough, she did, and she helped me adjust it for Smoke, before we got on our way.

It was a quintessential spring day in Montana. We wore our cozy dusters and rode along among the trees.  Speckles of sun illuminated the bright new grass poking through fallen rusty pine needles. The yellow faces of buttercups opened upwards and flecks of rain and gropple pelted us occasionally.

When we started to gait, I had to work to remember my seat but Smoke responded to my legs when I urged him on. I felt that familiar buzz in my bones and a smile rose up through my chest. I settled. There is a kind of stillness made only by the sounds of nature—the songs of birds, the creaking of lodgepoles, the tinny clamor of water in a stream bed—and the rhythm of hoof against ground somehow fits here.

Periodically, we would stop and rest the horses. Smoke’s back was warm, and we both broke a sweat, so I peeled off the duster and relished the simplicity of one less layer. We rode for a couple of hours, winding our way through woods, up slopes, along dreamy open meadows . . . We saw a few hikers with their dogs and waved as we floated by. I felt so lucky that I believed everyone we encountered had to be envious of these four women on horses, elevated, hinting at grace and grinning ear-to-ear.

Pam’s acute eye spotted the first pasque flowers, slowly opening as the day warmed up. The moisture in the air polished all things fresh, and more splashes of color seemed to emerge around us. Perched on Smoke’s back, I realized that all the little steps we took to get there—all the hours spent on the ground—were well worth the effort. That time gave me more courage, and confidence. That time planted the seeds of trust. So, when it came time to just get out and ride, I could feel pure elation after stepping up, off the ground.


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Danielle Lattuga is a novice horsewoman, frequently found guilty of confusing hoof beats with heartbeats. She believes that riding and writing are not so different: both part poetry, part sweat.  Follow her into Montana’s horse country, and find out if she’s right.