We decided to "hike with horses" during our recent trip to Arizona. I absolutely love spending time with horses, and it seemed a great way to get around - it also gave us lots of opportunities to spot wildlife (and spot we did!)
From the research I did before leaving the UK, Ponderosa Stables up near the South Mountain Preserve seemed like a great choice - Not too far from Phoenix and the horses looked in beautiful condition. Bill had never ridden before (apart from Camels in Marrakech, see previous blog posts if you're interested) and so what better place to learn than in the wild west!
We had come to realise that hiking in Arizona in the peak summer months was hard work. Both of us are fit and strong but it soon became clear that the sun was stronger. Twice we had to abandon big hikes/climbs up Squaw Peak and Camelback Mountain through either being too hot to even continue, mild heat stroke and then running low on water (6 litres still wasn't enough for us) so an early morning horse trek (7.30 am) seemed like a much nicer way of getting around, and it wasn't too hot for the horses either at that time of day.
Our guide was called Peter, or Curly-Slim (his ranch name,) an ex military man who embodied everything wild west - Tasselled boots, spurs, a thick southern accent and infectious enthusiasm which was channelled through a big smile and thick shoulders, all finished off with a Stetson. (What else?) We could point to any landmark, or odd looking rock, or Cactus, and he knew about it. Our horses (Specky, Sherrie, Skyball and Dingo) happily plodded along the terrain, which was a challenging mix of navigating up and down steep riverbeds and then guiding the horses through the infamous "Snake Alley" which proved to live up to its name. Our first wildlife sighting occurred minutes after setting off - A Zebra Tailed Lizard sat on a rock - A nice find for us, as we were yet to see anything on our previous failed hike up Squaw Peak. Turns out little lizards popped up everywhere, unfortunately I missed a few of these as my horse, Specks, wandered off the trail for a few minutes before we finally returned to Bill and Curly Slim. A Jack Rabbit was the next surprise. Huge with big, bumbling ears and a sort of dazed and bewildered look about them, native to the US and Mexico, it sat under a tree, perhaps avoiding the sun or maybe hiding from predators, it was completely un-phased by our presence, and bimbled off as we tailed past. Seeing a Coyote was a big highlight for me - I wasn't expecting to see one, and I still couldn't believe it when Bill shouted at us to turn and look. Trotting over a ridge no more than 20 metres away was a young male Coyote, panting under the sun and sniffing the air, before stopping to take a good look at us. What do we do? Are there more? Will the horses spook? Will the coyote attack the horses? It occurred to me that I didn't actually know what to do at this point, but the Coyote simply looked on and trotted away through a river bed, leaving us to our trek. What an experience to see such a beautiful animal in the wild. Seeing it on the television never prepares me for encounters like this - Life almost seems to pause momentarily.
Now the scariest part of these treks was our encounter with a Diamondback Rattlesnake. I should mention that our horses were an absolute delight - Well natured and enthusiastic but not easily spooked by birds flying from the trees or rabbits jumping nearby, but the Rattlesnake was different. Dingo near enough threw Curly Slim on the ground, as minutes after we entered Snake Alley, a Diamondback emerged, coiled in the hot sand, hissing and rattling, ready to have a go. We weren't sure at first if Dingo had actually trodden on the snake, but either way he knew it was there. By this time, our horses had noticed what was going on as the Snake rattled and hissed and gradually we backed them away and headed up a little ridge, away from the Snake, which was an adolescent male about 4 or 5 feet long. Adrenalin fuelled we headed back to the ranch, exhilarated, Curly Slim laughing, clearly taking the encounter in his stride. I guess to him it was just another day in the west.