In the summer, I usually get to the barn around the time the sun is rising over the mountains; golden rays flood through the openings along the jagged ridge of the mountains before sunlight finally explodes on the western slopes of the Catalinas. I like to watch the horses as their day begins. They get restless when they hear the tractor making its way down to the draft field and then around the wooden barn. The horses in Paco’s barn are the last to get morning feeding. They circle in the stalls, charge at one another, squeal and kick, as if to say, “Me first—you get out of my way.” Some days Paco does this; some days he waits patiently at the corner of his stall watching down the aisle for the first sight of the tractor, nickering quietly when it finally appears. Then, all you hear is the tractor as it moves into place in the aisle, each horse watching intently in anticipation, the tractor stopping periodically while the stall hand drops hay or alfalfa into the feeder tubs. Quiet follows the tractor as a wave of silence descends upon the horses until they are all fed; there is little or no noise then except for the sounds of eating.
Because I want Paco to have some of his breakfast before we ride out, I groom him in the stall while he digs into the grass hay and grabs great mouthfuls or pushes it up and out of the tub. I even saddle him up in the stall since my tack room is close by and I don’t have to interrupt his breakfast until we are all ready to go. My friends do much the same with their horses: Janis with Dundee and Jean with Chant. We like to get an early start so we get back before the heat of the day becomes unbearable.
The routine is simple and relatively standard. Each morning that we ride looks pretty much the same. On that fateful day, there was no reason at all for us to imagine that our regular Thursday morning ride would be any different from the hundreds of rides that had preceded it. But later I would know that this day was anything but normal.
Part II to follow.