Selima, America’s First Champion Racehorse

Over the course of the last several months, this blog has taken a turn from the western frontier into equestrian pursuits. Yesterday, I made a serendipitous visit to the Belair Stables, an unassuming building located a stone’s throw from my house, yet deeply connected to one of colonial America’s most intriguing stories.
The Godolphin Arabian, sire of Selima, the first champion racehorse of the American colonies.

As a child, I read (and loved) Misty of Chincoteague as well as King of the Wind, both by Marguerite Henry. For those unfamiliar with the plot, King of the Wind tells the improbable yet true story of a horse of unknown pedigree that was brought to Europe from Morocco, where the horse and his faithful attendant experience a series of misfortunes before finally coming into the home and stables of Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin. There, the horse–known as the Godolphin Arabian–became a cherished stud and the sire of outstanding racehorses; his progeny Lath won England’s Newmarket races 9 times. The racing records failed to impress my mind as a 10-year-old, but I was enchanted by Henry’s rags-to-riches story involving a horse.

Only a few weeks ago, I learned that Selima, a filly sired by King of the Wind, came to America around 1750. Selima’s new home was none other than the Belair Stables, a site that I had passed many times, never knowing the connection it bore to a beloved tale from my childhood.

Selima was a champion racehorse herself. In 1752, at the age of 7, she won the most significant race of the colonial era at Gloucester, VA. Astonishingly, she is believed to have walked almost the entire 150 miles from Maryland to Virginia for the race, and then still emerged the champion! The purse was a whopping 2,500 pistoles (a typical race of the era might have a prize of 30 pistoles). Selima eventually retired from racing and had 10 foals, many of whom became champion racehorses themselves.

I visited the Belair Stables and stood near the spot where Selima lived out her days, a place that many racing historians credit as the birthplace of professional horseracing in America. I viewed the stables and racing memorabilia, and thought about this mysterious horse named Selima, and the family who owned her, and how happenstance had suddenly brought me into such close proximity with a fascinating tale.

In digging around for more on Selima, I turned up this interesting article, originally published in Smithsonian. But I am sure there is more to the story, and luckily, I may not have too far to go to find it.  

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Ellis Island

It’s hard to believe that it’s been two full years since I stood on the shores of Ellis Island. That visit itself was long overdue. The site had been on my New York City bucket list since high school, but for one reason or another, I never seemed to be able to make it out there during my visits to the Big Apple.

Ellis Island buildings and ferry, early 1900s.

Finally, in March 2011, I managed to get myself and three accomplices onto the ferry and out to Ellis Island. We’d had to hop between various modes of transit – car to the train station, train into NYC, subway down to the harbor, a long line for tickets, and finally, the boat to the island. Although we’d started in the early morning, by now it was mid-afternoon. I was tired, hungry, and cranky. In other words, probably feeling a lot like the immigrants who were waiting for their first glimpse of America.

Like them, I was impatient. I wanted the journey to be over with already. After all the waiting, I just wanted to get there.

I wish I could say that there was a moment of epiphany when it was all worth it. Instead, we had less than an hour to spend at this place that had occupied my imagination for over a decade. You see, Ellis Island was the entry point my grand-grandparents had passed through on their journey to America. I had never met them; both sets had died before I was born, but Ellis Island was such an important part of their story that it became integral to my search for my own story. I was looking for my own American beginnings.

Upon arrival, I bypassed the museum (although I really wanted to go through it) and went straight to the Family Research Center. I had only two names and a rough date, and with that, I began searching.

And searching. I tried spelling variations. I tried different date ranges. I got creative with the country of origin. My forebears were of Polish and Slovakian stock, countries whose boundaries shifted considerably in the early 20th century. Would an immigration official have considered them Polish or Czechoslovakian or even Hungarian?

Despite all my efforts, I left with no more information that what I had arrived with. My great-grandparents and all the details of their arrival remained as much a mystery as ever.

This winter, I’d planned to go back to Ellis Island, but it sustained serious damage from Hurricane Sandy and wasn’t open, to my great disappointment.

I’m still searching. One day, I’ll find a name, a date, a ship’s manifest. I’ll have pieces of a story, and from those pieces, I’ll trace an online of the story of grandparents, my parents, me.

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The Upper Crust

During the winter months, I have to mostly content myself with dreaming of Western adventures. Until my next travels towards the sunset, I have been working on a couple of articles about cool frontier stuff like ghost towns and the Oregon Trail. I’ve dabbled in learning to ride English, and watched a whole lot of Downton Abbey. As a finale for Season 3, I decided to indulge in a Downton Abbey tribute dinner, inspired by Canadian food historian Pamela Foster’s totally awesome blog, Downton Abbey Cooks.

For my menu, I kept things simple. I did four courses, and had ambitiously selected a wine pairing for each. From watching another PBS show, I’d learned that German wines were apparently quite the thing in the early 1900s. We dutifully hunted up a Reisling to serve with dessert, since it seemed that Carson would be hanging on to tradition rather than embracing cocktails and modernity. The rest of the menu is as follows:

Oysters a la Russe – paired with a 2011 Paul Thomas Sancerre “Les Comtessese”

Asparagus Salad with Champagne-Saffron Vinaigrette – (we had the sancerre again)

Roast Chicken with Lemons and Root Vegetables – paired with a 2010 Philip Carter Meritage

Apple Charlotte – with the aforementioned Reisling, or the option of boutique, locally sourced coffee

First, I was in love with the names of the dishes alone. Simply saying “oysters a la Russe” aloud sent little shivers down my spine. Explaining that I was making a “champagne-saffron vinaigrette” to my mother, who was duly impressed, made the weekend feel 10 times more elegant, even as I went off to the supermarket that morning in sneakers and sweats to pick up my ingredients.

Secondly, although I had chosen dishes that were relatively simple and didn’t require a lot of hands-on time, and although I was only cooking for myself and my husband, doing a multi-course meal is exhausting. I cannot imagine how Mrs. Patmore would have cooked for an entire family, and their guests (and probably a lot of the servants) night after night, without any electric appliances and no modern refrigeration. By the time dinner was actually on the table, I was feeling a bit done in.  I still went upstairs and put on a fancy dress, because at Downton (even make-believe Downton), dressing for dinner is the right thing to do.

As far as the food itself, it turned out far better than I would have imagined. The oysters were a combination of Outer Banks and Chesapeake Bay oysters, and the rich flavors of the tomatoes and pepper made a very savory combination. Although the Sancerre was just a touch sweet, overall it went fairly well with the dish. And since the Loire Valley has been a wine-producing region for ages, we felt it was in the spirit of Downton to go with a French vintage for this course.

We really should have had another wine for the asparagus salad, but we stuck with the Sancerre as there was still plenty in the bottle. The saffron flavor was very subtle, but the color combinations of this dish made it quite pretty to look at. It may also have been the healthiest thing on the menu!

Now, the chicken. Quite simply, this is the best roast chicken recipe I’ve seen, hands down. The meat came out very moist and flavorful, and perfectly cooked after an hour and 45 minutes. I put herbs and butter AND lemon slices on and inside the chicken, and boy, it did the trick. I realize that serving a red, American vintage was a bit of an unusual choice for poultry, but there was a lot of white wine being served at other points in the meal, and I wanted something a bit earthy. Secondly, the Philip Carter winery is old, like 1762 old. In fact, the wines were awarded a Royal Society medal in the late 1700s. Maybe its a bit of a stretch that the Downton cellars would have included a New World vintage, but not impossible. And if they did, I suppose there are worse options than a Virginia-grown blend of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

The apple charlotte was also a pleasant surprise. This was my first go-round making this dessert, and I decided to fancy up the recipe a bit. Apparently cinnamon was not used widely around the WWI era, but I threw in a few dashes of nutmeg to liven things up.

Amy’s Apple Charlotte:

6-7 slices buttered bread
4-5 peeled and thinly sliced Granny Smith Apples
1/2 c. white, granulated sugar
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
Heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the nutmeg and white sugar in a bowl. Stir the sugar mixture and the apples together. Place a layer of buttered bread in the bottom of a pie plate, buttered side down. You may need to use partial slices of bread to cover the plate completely. Add two layers of apple slices. Sprinkle a portion of the brown sugar on top. Add a layer of buttered bread, and more apple slices, covering the bread completely. Sprinkle again with brown sugar. Bake for 45 minutes. Allow to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, beat the heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Top individual servings of the apple charlotte with freshly whipped cream – and a little nutmeg, if desired. Serve at once.

The end result? I’m not quitting my day job for culinary school anytime soon, but it was a tremendously fun experiment. Maybe I’ll kick Season 4 off with a special “downstairs” menu in honor of the folks who really keep Downton going.

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A Proper Seat, Part 2

This blog has taken an unexpected turn towards England. I’ll be back to the West soon enough, but in the meantime, here is the conclusion of my riding adventures this past winter.

Lady Mary Crawley of PBS’ Downton Abbey.

Like most things, English-style riding looks easy. In practice, it’s not. I’m not sure if I ever looked graceful and elegant in the saddle, but I sure tried.

As I wrote in my earlier post, it was quite an adjustment moving to English tack, and an English saddle.  I found that I was using my legs in a real way, first to give commands to the horse, and later, to try the gait that had always eluded me, trotting.

For me, being able to trot was at about the same level of probability as finding a unicorn. Walking is easy. Cantering is fun. Trotting made me crazy, and I inevitably ended up bouncing like a sack of potatoes. I could not get my motion aligned with the motion of the horse.

I tried to post, rising and falling in the horse’s rhythm. But something was off, and I ended up just making my legs tired. The instructor yelled something about diagonals. I had no idea what she was talking about.

Finally, I was told to watch the horse’s outside leg, and time my upward motion with that movement. I watched, and I did. It was awkward at first – part of my attention diverted to watching the horse, part of my attention diverted to keeping myself balanced, and part of my attention making sure I was still using the reigns.

There was a moment, though, when thought was suspended, and all the parts snapped into place. It was effortless. I was gliding, moving as easily as a feather in a stream. Gone were the jolts, the bounces, the dissonance that rattled my teeth and left bruises down my thighs. I flew, gently and gracefully.

It wasn’t a perfect lesson, and I am by no means a perfect horsewoman. But now I know what perfect feels like.

What’s next? Jumping, I should think.

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A Proper Seat

Some kids dream about becoming an astronaut or a ballerina when they grow up, or, perhaps President of the United States. My dream was horses.
I loved them. Whenever I got a chance, I rode. Not many in our circle of acquaintances owned horses, so my experiences were limited to the rare treat of an afternoon ride with a friend or family member who actually happened to have a pony or gelding out back. But I persisted, attending a handful of horsemanship camps as a teen and using the next best source of information available to me, World Book Encyclopedia, to brush up my knowledge on various riding styles.
I always rode Western. If I wasn’t exactly a proficient rider, I was nevertheless comfortable enough with the saddle and its trappings to feel confident that I could keep my seat. My Western riding career reached its apex during a cattle drive that put these tenuous skills to the test. My horse and I leaped ditches, ran across meadows, and chased renegade cows back into the herd. I loved it.
But it wasn’t quite enough. I didn’t just want to ride a horse, I wanted to look good doing it. And for that, I needed to learn English riding.
Ah, English riding. What could be more elegant than sitting astride a horse, back perfectly upright, balancing effortless poise and a dash of glamour? There is a reason that dressage and not calf roping is an Olympic sport. Both require exceptional skill and horsemanship, but only dressage is beautiful to look at.
Which is why, on a cold night in November, I hoofed it down to a local riding academy and began my first English riding lessons. The saddle felt tiny, as I knew it would.  On a whim, I’d talked a friend into taking a polo class with me the previous summer, and the English saddles had seemed shockingly inadequate to the task of keeping us on the horse while we galloped up and down the field, trying desperately to connect the mallet to the ball and move it in the right direction. I discovered that playing polo before really knowing how to ride English was akin to tackling calculus before getting a grasp on long division.
The placid old gelding and I circled the arena, never moving faster than a plodding walk. I took advantage of the slow pace to check my posture. Yes, I was sitting nicely.
The old Western habits died hard, however. I tried to turn my horse, Monkey Bread, by neck reining him. The instructor quickly corrected me, and I spent the rest of the lesson trying to habituate myself into using the English style of pulling back on the reign and pressing against the horse with my leg. It wasn’t exactly moving cattle, but it was, I hoped, moving me towards my goal of presenting a tolerable mimicry of Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary.   
I head back in another week for my next lesson. Maybe this time we’ll break out a walk and I can try posting, followed by a nice cup of afternoon tea.
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Vote Early, Vote Often

 On Tuesday night, I spent a good 45 minutes waiting in line to vote. Since cell phones are prohibited in polling places, it was a good time to get some thinking done and mull over the electoral process.
It struck me that while more and more of our daily lives can be conducted online (shopping for gifts, paying bills, buying groceries, renting movies…even renewing library books), voting is one of the few activities in American culture that still must be done in person. That was why, on that dark and chilly evening, I put on a pair of sneakers, bundled up in my winter coat and hat, and walked 10 minutes up the street to a local elementary school to cast my vote.
Walking to the polling place felt a bit old-fashioned, yet somehow fitting. Voting is a communal activity, and I didn’t want to hide behind my car or my cell phone. When I arrived, I saw more of my neighbors than I had ever had before. Old, young, black, white, Asian. Men and women, union members and office workers, young twentysomethings in sweats and families bringing their kids. It was a melting pot in microcosm, it was Ellis Island on the local level.
Of course, voting hasn’t always been like this, and as a woman, I am very aware that it took decades of dedicated and pioneering effort to extend suffrage to both genders.
In fact, many of the first states to allow women to vote were Western states, where women were “pioneers” on many levels! The territory of Wyoming gave women voting rights in 1869 (I read somewhere that this was done to create better public order and curb the effects of too many rough and tumble men participating in the political process). In fact, when Wyoming became a state in 1890, it insisted on retaining suffrage for women.
Utah’s move to support women’s suffrage in 1870 is said to have been part of a PR campaign to counter perceptions of Mormonism as anti-female. Women’s voting rights there were later repealed under the Edmunds–Tucker Act, but by the time Utah became a state in 1896, women had won back their right to vote.
Montana was also an early adopter of female suffrage, giving women the right to vote in 1914.  Montana then became the first state to elect a woman to Congress. Jeanette Rankin won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1917, at the age of 36. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment, considering that the United States did not amend its Constitution to give women the right to vote until 1920. It really makes you wonder what her first day on the job was like when she got to Washington.

Note: New Jersey is actually the first state where women had full voting rights. After the Revolutionary War, eligibility to vote was determined by property ownership, not gender. In 1790, state law was amended to specifically state that women had the right to suffrage. In 1807, these privileges were revoked by the New Jersey state legislature.

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Kevin Corcoran’s Gun, and Other Anachronisms

I’ve been watching the BBC America series Copper with great interest, partly because I really miss Deadwood, and partly because I’m a bit of a Civil War buff, especially after reading Tony Horwitz’s hilarious and insightful Confederates in the Attic.

For those not familiar with the series, it centers around the misadventures of Irish-American cop Kevin Corcoran, a veteran of the Union Army who is now serving as a police detective in 1864 New York City. A major premise of the plotline, and one the fuels the numerous gunfights and physical altercations that Kevin finds himself embroiled in, is the rough and tumble justice of the notorious Five Points neighborhood. As the show would have it, New York’s finest had a “shoot first, don’t ask questions” mode of operation that made them little better than the criminals they were meant to neutralize.

Which begs the question – just what was the day-to-day operation of NYPD like in the 1860s? I decided to do some digging.

Snafu #1 – Most Police Officers Didn’t Have Guns in the 1860s

My forays into the history of the American West naturally brought me into the history of firearms in the United States. I couldn’t study the West without eventually studying guns, too. Kevin Corcoran’s revolver gets quite a lot of screen time, and most of the other coppers are armed with handguns as well.

However, in the 1860s, cops and guns didn’t necessarily go hand in hand. At this point in time, American police departments did not issue firearms to their members. Cops who elected to carry a gun most likely paid for it out of their own pocket. Colt, in fact, was marketing moderately-priced handguns specifically towards police officers in the 1870s. The New York City police department did not require officers to carry guns until 1887. Patrolmen were armed with nightsticks.

So while it’s possible ol’ Corky could have carried a gun, either by buying his own, or by surreptitiously hanging on to one issued from his Army days, the premise is a little sketchy. I suppose nightsticks just wouldn’t create the same dramatic effect.

Snafu #2 – New York City Cops Actually Had a Rulebook

The premise that law enforcement was fast and loose and that very little procedural precedent was in place is another area where the BBC has taken liberties with the facts. New York City actually has one of the longest histories of community policing anywhere in the United States, dating all the way back to 1625 when the area was a Dutch colony. In those days, law enforcement officers patrolled the settlement and were charged with keeping the peace, settling disputes, and warning settlers of fire – a real danger in days when most buildings were made of wood, and fire departments lay decades in the future.

The New York City Police Department proper was founded in 1845. In that same year, the first Police Chief issued a booklet titled “Rules and Regulations of the Day and Night Police of the City of New York With Instructions as to the Legal Powers and Duties of Policemen.”

There is the argument that rules are not always followed, and I’ll buy that regulations are open to manipulation in any era to serve individual and political ends. But the idea that there were no rules for the police in 1864 simply isn’t true.

Snafu #3 – NYPD Didn’t Have Detectives in 1864

The Detective Bureau didn’t exist until 1882. There were undercover officers, but their function was more to deter petty crime rather than solve major cases.  No Detective Bureau, no Detective Corcoran. You’d think someone at BBC would have checked that before giving the program lead a title that he couldn’t have held.

But wait, it’s a television show, not a documentary! True. However, the most successful historical dramas know the world they are operating in, and engage with it authentically. Not so they can recreate it, but so they can make informed choices about how their characters would live, move, and breathe in that alternate time and place. The scenes of Elizabeth Haverford watching the Booth Brothers perform Julius Caesar (dramatically intercut with a race to stop a plot to burn NYC to the ground) are fantastic and powerful – and based on a actual historic performance by the Booths in New York in 1864. The plot to burn New York is also “based on a true story.”

In short, when writers do their homework, it shows. When they don’t, that is obvious as well.

Now, who wants to bring me on as a historical consultant on their program?

PS Some information contained in this post is based on my own original research. For specifics related to the history of the New York City police department, I went to their own website, which has some wonderful data on the history of the force.

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Where I’ve Been: A Writing Roundup

Photo by Penny Shaut.

 Howdy folks! Quite a lot has happened since last summer’s cattle drive. I’ve moved, gotten married, adopted a cat (and a dog), and yes, I’ve been writing. Here is a quick rundown of links to recent articles and blog posts.

Roadtripping With the King James Bible

During my famous road trip of 2010, which was the instigation for this blog, I carried along a Victorian-era copy of the King James Bible. I wanted a book that had actually existed during the heyday of the American West, and after a lot of searching, I finally found one. I wrote about my “heirloom” for Manifold Greatness, a blog that correlates to an NEH-sponsored exhibition on the history and cultural impact of the King James Bible.

Buck Taylor, the Original Cowboy Hero 

The figure of Buck Taylor, one of the stars of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, continues to intrigue me long after I returned from the West. I did a quick post on Buck for my friend Ken Ackerman’s blog, Viral History.

The Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive

This piece originally appeared in the print edition of American Cowboy magazine. I spent five days driving cattle through the Nevada desert, listening to coyotes howl at night and keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes during the day. It was fantastic!

Food from the Age of Shakespeare

I like cooking and eating just as much as I enjoy history and pop culture. When I got a chance to blend the two in an article for Smithsonian, I couldn’t wait! This article chronicles my experiences preparing 17th-century recipes, which have no measurements, cooking times, or temperatures. Amazingly, they were edible.

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One of the Boys

Writers, especially us human-interest types that lean towards the first person, walk a fine line. Most of the cattle drive staff, including the trail boss, Brad, and the cattle boss, Randy, knew that I was “on assignment.” Whether I wanted to out myself to my fellow participants remained largely at my own discretion. But since I needed to interview them, I figured the cat would be out of the bag eventually and it would be best to tell what I was doing up front.

The end result was that I did the drive with a split personality. From 7am (or whatever earlier hour the day got started) until the time we got into camp, I was just one of many wannabe wranglers, hustling cows along and doing my best not to make any trouble. On good days, I felt as if I was actually being helpful.

But once we hit camp, I switched from cowboy to journalist. I wiped the dust off as best I could, changed out of my filthy Carhartt jeans, and grabbed my notebook. Taking interviews the old-fashioned way, pen and paper in hand, seemed more fitting than typing something on my laptop (although that was packed away in my duffel bag, just in case.) Most people were happy to talk. A few got extra-inquisitive and kept asking me about the story while we were out with the herd, trying to keep 300 steers “on task.” Those were the moments when I wished there was something called journalistic immunity. I wanted to keep the story for myself and tell it when I was ready. I didn’t want to answer questions while it was still gestating, drifting around half-baked in my brain that already felt overloaded taking in some many new experiences.

The drive did not give me any profound moments. I didn’t have brilliant insights, or reach a Zen-like state by discovering my place in the universe. I was there to do a job, and my visions began and ended with that. I was there to ride a horse and punch cows, and following that, I was to write.

As a result, pragmatism found its way into my luggage as well. I brought 39.5 lbs of gear out with me, including my tent, sleeping bag, and clothes. None of it was makeup. (Ok, I had a little face powder, but with SPF 15, it served a practical function.) I did not come West to play pretty. My legitimacy on this trip rested on whether or not I could rise to the occasion. I figured after I mastered those priorities, then I could worry about glamming it up on some future venture. I didn’t want superficial stuff to get in the way of immersing myself in the experience, whatever that might entail. I didn’t want to be a fake, the female equivalent of a man who is “all hat and no cattle.”

In the end, I’m not sure if my attempts at authenticity made the trip any more or less genuine. As I mentioned, I didn’t experience the profound. But I did experience satisfaction. There is a simple contentment in taking risks and finishing a job. And that I found in spades.

Note: The Toby Keith bumper sticker was affixed to one of the chairs in the dining tent. I had to take a picture!

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Dust and Saddle Leather

I returned yesterday from my stint as a modern-day cowpuncher. With 65 other aspirational cowboys, I spent 5 days moving a herd of steers through the High Sierra outside of Reno, NV.

Even with creature comforts like coldwater showers and hot meals, cowboying is tough. And despite the impression that cowboys are individualistic do-it-yourselfers, getting cows from Point A to Point B is a lesson in teamwork. On a cattle drive, each person has an assigned position and in order to keep the herd from devolving into chaos, everyone has to be in the right place at the right time. And since cows and horses tend to move–and cows are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to bolt out of the herd–constant adjustments are necessary. Brad, our trail boss, called this the “dynamic principle.” If there’s a gap in front of you, move up. If there’s a gap behind you, fall back. If the cows are moving too slowly, coordinate with the other riders to get behind them and use a combination of yells and your horse’s momentum to push ’em up. And if a cow gets loose, ride it down, get your horse between it and the open range, and drive it back into the herd.

On this drive, Part 1 of success relied on paying attention and using teamwork. Part 2 came from the horses. A horse can make or break its rider’s efficiency. We used trail horses, not trained cow ponies. And yes, there is a difference.

Trail horses tend to do what they are used to, i.e. walk behind each other as if on a leisurely pleasure ride. Cow ponies, on the other hand, are the offensive tacklers of cattle drives.

They’re fast. They know how to block. They’ll even use their teeth to nip at ornery steers and hustle them along.

I rode three horses over the course of the drive. Chino, whose habit of kicking whatever horse happened to be behind us meant I spent most of my time correcting his behavior, much like the mother of a screaming toddler. There was Gunsmoke, tall and comfortable to ride but so slow that if a cow got past us, it would likely be in the next county before he could be urged into more than a trot. And Cookie. Dark and fast, Cookie was no professional cow pony, but he wasn’t afraid to run and the best moments of the drive occurred while we were moving a breakaway steer back into the herd and then galloping to catch up. He made me look good, and for that I am grateful.

This is the hierarchy of cattle drives. The cows first, your horse second, and yourself last. Horses got water even when we didn’t. And our pace was set not by any schedule of human devising, but by the speed of the slowest-walking cow.

As far as the rest of it–falling asleep in my tent, hearing coyotes howling, waking up before the sun when the moon was bright enough to cast shadows–that was just like the movies. I’m not a cowboy. But I played one, once.

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