Wyoming, USA: Driving into the town of Dubois (pronounced “Du-boys”), felt like cruising on to the set of an Old Western film. Its notorious bar Outlaw Saloon drew pool-players and karaoke-singers, while across the road, Cowboy Café was popular for burger and steak lovers. There was a square dance in town on Tuesdays and a rodeo on Fridays, when young women sporting glitzy jeans tore around barrels on their trusty steeds. The American flag decorated the entire town, if not on the caps and clothing of residents then hanging outside every eatery and pub as a reminder to tourists of which country they were in. It didn’t occur to me when I first arrived in the US, but this funny little hamlet would be my closest thing to civilisation during my 10 weeks at Bitterroot ranch.
Bought in 1971 by ex-CIA operative Bayard Fox (now 90 years-old but still fishing, riding and motoring around on his four-wheeler) the ranch was actually 30 miles from Dubois in the foothills of the Abasaroka mountains (a subrange of the American Rockies) in northwest Wyoming’s Wind River Valley. (Aka: smack bang in the middle of nowhere). To the north was the 2.4 million-acre Shoshone National Forest and across the valley stood the stunning Wind River mountains – forever snow-capped and forming part of the continental divide. Running through the property was the East Fork River.
Enroute to the ranch my exhaustion from taking six flights in one week was tempered by incredible views of the Teton mountains and some cool animal encounters. First, an enormous herd of bison crossing the road infront of us, spilling onto a huge grassy pasture (an actual Dances With Wolves moment). Then, an eagle flying into its nest on a telegraph pole, and finally, a grizzly bear and her cub, just hanging out by the side of the road. Despite having never seen a bear before and being desperate for a closer look, I resolved it was probably best to stay in the car (shockingly, some parents let their children get out).
When I arrived at the ranch around 8pm, the place was deathly quiet, spooky almost. Then in the darkness, one of my new bosses, Hadley, finally appeared. “Hey everyone, this is Elizabeth, our new wrangler,” she announced to the brand-new faces inside. It was a strange feeling. I’d always been introduced as the new “volunteer” or “horse girl”, but “wrangler” sounded much cooler.
An American education
From that moment forward, I felt like I was in America school. People used words like “y’all” in a non-joking way and everyone rode around in huge trucks listening to country music. I also attended my first keg party in the loft above the barn, a space which, decorated with beer cans, posters and old photos, made me think of a room in a frat house.
But my education wasn’t always easy. I could sense the eye-rolling when I called the horses’ halters “head-collars” and when asked by my other boss Mel (Bayard’s wife and the ranch matriarch) to go and find a “slicker” for a guest, I had absolutely no clue what she was talking about. (For those who don't know, it’s a raincoat).
I was also surprised by how people dressed in this place – it really was like being in a John Wayne film. A co-worker called Wade who was with us to ride the difficult horses would arrive at the barn in long, leather, fringed chaps over jeans, a waistcoat, striped shirt, cowboy hat and spurs. In fairness, the guy was a bronc rider, but I still joked with him that I needed a photo to show people in England.
Ironically it was Wade who saved the day when I was hauled over the coals for my own outfit, kindly lending me a brightly-coloured shirt to mitigate Mel’s wrath. “You look very scruffy,” she said one morning. I was shocked. Who looks smart when they work with horses? And for the record, my jodhpurs were expensive.
And so it was that I jumped on the checked-shirt bandwagon. No sooner had I been called scruffy than I’d gone shopping for “more ranchy” clothes, adding to my basket a collection of shirts, some flared jeans with jewels on the bottom and a white top with…. yes, a USA flag across the chest. I admit, the shirts turned out to be pretty useful in the sun, but I never wore the jeans. In fact, I've always drawn the line at riding in them – they are uncomfortable and unpractical. You can take the girl out of Cheshire...
Terrific trees, sparkling rocks and Butch Cassidy’s hideout
Thankfully, most of the early worries I had would simply melt away when riding through Wyoming's cinematic landscape. In some ways it was like Patagonia; desolate, dry, hilly, with fast flowing rivers and harsh temperatures, and a therapeutic silence that, admittedly, I often struggled to hear because of all the guest-wrangler chit-chat.
But there were plenty of differences too. The hills weren’t as steep or rocky, and there were trees everywhere. Conifers of all shapes and sizes blanketed the hills and smelled like Christmas. Together with the sagebrush, they made the whole place incredibly aromatic. Even the dead wood – the result of a pine beetle epidemic – had its place, giving the forest a dishevelled and untamed edge.
My favourite trees were the aspens. Known to grow in clusters or stands close to conifers and thought to have one big underground root system, they provided shade from the summer heat in the summer and when the sun beamed through them it created this gorgeous natural light. When the wind blew through their tiny leaves they looked like they were glittering, and I later learnt that the Native Americans called them “woman’s tongue” because of the chattering sound they made (though it’s more of a whisper).
Wyoming was unique too, for its amazing variety of colourful and sparkly rocks. From chunky white quartz to huge, smooth pink stones that looked like brains, I became obsessed with collecting them. Most were peppered north of the ranch in an area resplendent with striped mounds of bentonite, which, formed through the alteration of volcanic ash, apparently has a wide range of uses from pond lining to toothpaste. For us it made for some fun riding trails we called “the Rollercoaster” and “the Moonwalk”. (Less fun, was getting bucked while cantering downhill on the rollercoaster by a headstrong horse called Medora).
And then there were the fascinating stories about the land's former inhabitants, from the famous Chief Washakie (a leader of the Shoshones) to a badass lady sheep rancher. For me, one of the best featured outlaw Butch Cassidy. The train and bank robber, we were told, moved constantly to avoid capture but Dubois was apparently one of his favourite haunts. It took Bayard 30 years, but he finally found the Cassidy hideout (which he'd known was around somewhere) tucked away in a remote canyon less than half a day’s ride from the ranch. It was the perfect place for a criminal on the run with horses – remote but with a stream and small pasture nearby. To me, it looked rather like a big pile of logs, but was still pretty cool.
The only geographical force I struggled with was the cold. After a long hot summer my excitable Brazilian friend Amanda and I had been desperate for some milder weather, but when the change of seasons came it was if Wyoming had skipped autumn altogether. I can’t deny that it was stunning – our first glimpse was snow on the Abasarokas, which we could see from right outside our cabins, and shortly thereafter, the aspens began turning yellow. But when we had bitter winds and nonstop rain, it was tough to be outside all day. I spent many a morning wading through the corral’s deep mud bath to catch a horse, only for it to bolt in the other direction. I needed at least two outfits on standby if it rained, while trails up into the hills were hard. At the end of one ride my entire crotch was soaked with icy water, and on another, my feet, hands and face were so cold I was literally fighting back tears. After that particular ride I resorted to wearing countless tops underneath a fleece, body-warmer and two coats. I wore three pairs of trousers, plus wool socks and gloves. So basically, all of my clothes (actually they were mostly my friend Galina’s).
My own hideout, and the horse revolutions
One of the best places at the ranch (especially in the cold) was actually my own hideout – a cosy log cabin next to the river that I shared with Galina. Another single, 30-something vegetarian who seemed to get my weird British humour and need for beer (despite not drinking herself), she quickly became a great friend, and the cabin, our little sanctuary.
In the evenings we’d chat and watch movies while eating chocolate and pringles (partly due to some vegetarian-hating from the kitchen), finally lulled to sleep by the sound of the rushing river just a few metres away, (which we often mistook for rain). In the mornings we’d wake up early to the clip-clopping of the horses’ hooves as they meandered down from the top of the hill (known as ‘the bench’), or better still, to a group of Arabians chomping on grass right outside our door. Though we moaned about the short walk to the shared outdoor bathroom, the starry, alpine view on a clear night wasn’t too shabby.
Two days a week it was our turn to bring the horses down (or wrangle). We had to get up at 6am and motor up on the four-wheeler, which was initially terrifying and fun at the same time. Galina refused to drive it despite having a licence to handle a motorbike, which left me with the adrenaline-producing task of getting up and through the pasture without flying over a cliff, getting stuck in an irrigation ditch or flipping over in the mud. Eventually I came to love driving that thing, and the spectacular views really did make getting up early worthwhile. One day we were greeted by a herd of elk, and another we watched as a full moon went down on one side of the sky and the sun came up on the other. In fact, wrangling was a pretty great part of the job. Essentially you got to zoom around the bench on a motorbike, surrounded by mountains, shouting “aaaaaayyyyyooooowwww” at the top of your lungs while watching an amazing herd of horses make their way down to work.
Except, of course, when the horses decided to mutiny.
The term “horse revolution” was coined by Amanda. It only happened a handful of times, but on those few occasions, wrangling was especially hard work, and we'd all have to help. It normally started well, with everyone making their way to the gate in an orderly fashion. Then, out of nowhere, a small group of horses would stop dead in their tracks and refuse to go any further. And then, despite some encouragement from the wranglers, they’d abruptly turn and run, leading the entire herd cantering back in the other direction. This would happen two or three more times until the exasperated humans came up with a new plan.
It happened to Galina and I one evening when moving the horses to their nighttime pasture. The timing was unfortunate as it meant sprinting up and down the pasture in the dark, but in hindsight it taught me a valuable lesson. After about an hour, exhausted, we realised something had unnerved the horses and we needed to settle them down. We eventually managed to move them by haltering and reassuring some of the ringleaders, and I left the bench that night ever more convinced that a gentle approach with horses is best.
All the pretty horses
When they weren’t revolting, our (approx) 140-strong herd – which included quarter horses, mustangs, Percherons, Appaloosas and home-bred Arabians (many of whom had Swahili names because Mel grew up in Africa) – were sweet-natured and eager to please. Though Mel’s policy was pretty hands off (we did very little grooming, for example) the horses seemed mostly happy, their lives spent rolling in the mud, running around outside and socialising in a herd – their natural environment. There’s no doubt I missed all the brushing and hoof-picking I did in Mozambique, but when a co-worker told me the Native Americans believed wind knots in the manes should be left for our ancestors to hold on to when riding the horses at night, I figured that was one less reason to comb them out.
One thing we did do religiously was soak our horses’ legs in the ice-cold river after rides or when lame. I thought this was a great idea. I also loved the physio we did with the stiffer ones, stretching/circling their legs each day. I was a little surprised there wasn’t more desensitisation and handling with the younger or less cooperative horses, but I have to admit to loving my rides on one of our four-year-old Arabians called Eugeegee, who, despite having only been backed a handful of times, was absolutely fantastic. I was also impressed not to be bitten during my stay, though I did get trodden on... twice in one day... by very large horses... on the same foot!
Aside from dodging their clumsy feet, my biggest challenge was to remember all their names. Faced with so many grey and chestnut Arabians, who would often group according to colour, it was quite the task.
Luckily, the horses would help me out sometimes. When feeding some of the older ones, I’d stop to study their markings only to hear a whinny from a grey called Laisamas as if to say “yes, it’s me”, while a pushier gelding called Kalenjin would simply barge into me and follow me around like a starved puppy. Another grey called Glacier would simply bring himself in, hanging out by the gate until we realised we’d forgotten him, and a very sweet horse called Kitui – the best of all at making himself known – would prick his head and ears up when you called his name.
The most adorable, however, was Odin. Not to be confused with any other horse, this chunky, five-year-old, brown dun, Fjord/Percheron mix, who shared his name with the great Norse god, was like an enormous teddy bear. He had a huge head and a thick, black mane with beautiful blonde highlights that would blow in the wind as if for a Pantene advert. But despite his size and strength, he had the gentlest disposition you could ask for. When he wasn’t following us around the corral chewing the ropes on our halters, he’d lie down and submit to be cuddled. Though a bit lumbering, he also had surprisingly smooth gaits and was great at herding the cows.
In truth there were plenty of special horses at our ranch, from 3 Dot the once-wild mustang who joined the herd as a filly, to the sweet but spritely Trojan, so-called because he snuck in without anyone knowing (they didn’t realise his mum was pregnant). The Arabians too, were as amazing on the ground as they were to ride, and I even came to appreciate a less popular horse called Misty after, on the notorious, cold ride (above) she was unusually cooperative and let me warm up my freezing hands on her neck.
A harsh reminder
There was one more horse who stood out to me because of how she behaved during a particularly stressful incident.
It started as another typical work day. I was on horse called Red Hawk, and it was my first time riding a trail we called Buffalo Draw (Bayard had previously kept buffalo that would often break out of their pastures and wander through the area).
The weather was perfect: The sky was clear and the sun bright, but not swelteringly hot. Other than the guests, there were no other humans anywhere, and as usual, I was captivated by the scenery and the quiet. I’d been informed that the expansive plains we were headed to were the stomping ground of wild horses, and I for sure, was keeping my eyes peeled for them.
We were walking slowly, just around the top of a rock-cluttered peak, when out of nowhere, I watched in horror as the woman two horses ahead slid from her saddle in what seemed to be slow motion. I gasped as I realised her horse had also fallen. After a moment of panic, I jumped off Red Hawk and ran to help. I saw the guest trapped between Rose (a docile, Belgian Morgan) and a barbed wire fence, and Rose, desperately trying to get up, was rolling on the poor woman. Worse still, because they were slightly downhill, Rose was stuck. I was shaking slightly as the rider screamed at me: “Get this thing off me! Get this thing off me!”
I took one look at the horse’s terrified eyes and realised it wasn’t just the guest who needed help. “You need to calm down,” I told the woman. I then tried to pull Rose up by her head but, paralysed with fear, she seemed to have given up. Hadley, who was leading the ride, then appeared and together we tried from both ends to roll her back to standing. No luck.
It’s strange how in these moments you forget snippets of time. I can’t remember how, but somehow Rose managed to find her feet and luckily her rider was able to scramble to one side, dragging an injured limb with her. But as Rose stood up she put her head and neck through the fence, entangling herself in the barbed wire.
Seeing the guest crawl away I knew she was out of danger, but I was terribly upset and frightened for Rose. The wire was cutting into her neck, there seemed to be blood everywhere and, in all the mayhem, she and her sister Ruby (whom another guest was riding) were calling to each other. Neither Hadley nor I had a knife or wire cutters, so after a few attempts to free her, all we could do was wait for help. I was amazed at how Rose reacted. She must have been in pain, but rather than struggling, she just stood very still.
Pretty traumatised, I refused to give up: there had to be a way to untangle her. Then I realised one of the pieces of wire was twisted around the stirrup. I managed to pull it off, and finally the wire loosened around her neck. I called Hadley; now all we needed to do was duck her head back under the fence and she’d pop back out the other side. But I guess Rose had had enough, and after a couple of attempts by us to push her back, she simply charged through the wire.
In the end we were lucky: all people and animals were ok, no major injuries. Rose’s rider, who was helicoptered to safety, came away with a dislocated ankle; thankfully nothing serious. As for Rose, I eventually got to slowly walk her home and back at the ranch discovered she had just a few cuts (and after some rest made a full recovery). But I have to admit to feeling quite upset by the whole thing. It was a harsh reminder to take more care when riding, to always carry a phone and preferably, some wire cutters. It also gave me new respect for Rose. I didn't know if she’d been hobble-trained, but in my opinion, she was super brave.
The wild horses wouldn’t drag me away
I never did see wild horses that day, but I needn’t have worried; there were plenty of wildlife sightings still to come. On one ride with Amanda we were stunned (and slightly nervous) to find a mum and baby moose grazing along the creek, while later in the season I saw coyotes howling to each other. On a long walk in search of abandoned antlers with Galina, we were stopped in our tracks by the sound of elk calls echoing around the otherwise silent valley, which honestly was one of the most enchanting things I’ve ever heard. (At the time I thought it sounded like a wind instrument but I’ve since read that male elk ‘bugle’). On that same walk I got extremely close to a herd of pronged-horned antelope that stopped and stared at me against a backdrop of snowy mountains, before running away in a very surreal moment. Two herds of wild horses, though curious, unfortunately kept a lot further away, but I was ecstatic to finally seen them.
When the time finally came to leave Wyoming, I was excited to be going home. Though there was no denying the scenery and horses were wonderful, my stay was of course not without its challenges, from an apparent prejudice against vegetarians to quite a tough ranch culture: you had to be very brave to ask questions, the saddles weighed as much as I did, suffering in the cold generally wasn’t met with much sympathy and God forbid a cow got away while you were chasing it (the upside being that I developed quite a thick skin).
I also realised that while I routinely rave about the benefits of travelling, one of the things it has taught me lately is to appreciate England and my family. Yes, my parents and sisters drive me mad, the novelty of British supermarkets wears off after a week and the weather is mostly miserable and grey, but there’s something about Sainsbury's houmous, about watching my four gorgeous nieces do a synchronised dance to Meghan Trainor and about a crisp winter morning in the pretty Cheshire countryside that makes me relaxed about taking a rest here for a while.
Maybe it’s because I just can’t get those things anywhere else. Or perhaps because it’s only a matter of time before I book my next trip.
Hmm, I wonder where that will be…