Books by Laura Chester
Excerpt from Riding Barranca: finding freedom and forgiveness on the midlife trail


Riding Barranca: Finding Freedom and Forgiveness on the Midlife TrailUnconfined space and a feeling of freedom are what I love most about riding. Sinking into the rhythm of my horse, I am more in touch with the instinctive sense—more alert to my surroundings, much like the animal beneath me. I enjoy exploring new territory, not sure of what challenge might face me next. Even getting lost in the wilderness has its rewards-- reminding me that I am never completely in charge—that the earth is a huge, magnificent place full of surprises. More often than not, I have found that my horse has a better sense of direction than I do. A horse's memory is profound.

I feel extremely lucky to have found four great geldings in the past several years. As with children, I could say that I don't have any favorites, but Barranca will always be my best boy. He is a big chocolate Missouri Fox Trotter with the kindest eye. His forelock ripples over his face and his tail almost sweeps the ground. While visiting my mother up in Scottsdale, soon after my father's death, I encountered Barranca in a private barn nearby. It was love at first sight. When he saw me coming, he started to prance around his pen, and I was instantly taken. He was recovering from a barbed wire injury and I feared that I might be acquiring another lame horse with insurmountable problems, but with proper care and chiropractic work, he became the most relaxed and lovely ride with perfect gaits. I often feel there is a genuine telepathic communication going on between us.

I had the joy of riding Barranca out west during the winter of this account. During this season I was also struggling with my mother's descent into Alzheimer's. Mysteriously, during the course of this disease, her angry, jealous personality was transformed into a sweet and loving presence making reconciliation possible between us. As I struggled to put our past behind, Barranca offered me the silent consolation only a big-hearted animal can give. Riding him out onto the open range helped me to find forgiveness and left me with a feeling of liberation. After the mind sifts through so many memories and scenarios, riding Barranca put me in the moment, which is where I want to live.

In the spring of the year, Barranca was moved back home to the Berkshires of Massachusetts.  Rocket, a palomino Tennessee Walker from the Box-Hanging-Three Ranch in Dubois, Wyoming, is now his steady companion. This palomino is a beautiful four-year-old with perfect proportions. He is never more glorious than when I shampoo his massive mane which falls equally on either side of his neck. Like most horses, he hates to be left alone, and now that I only have two mounts in the east, I hope to give him the attention he deserves, so that he doesn't feel compelled to jump out of his stall from a standstill, or leap out of his pasture—quite the escape artist!

Tonka-Waken, my Fox Trotter in Arizona, looks like a strong, solid, Indian pony with a stud-proud neck and compact body. His white-blond forelock falls low on his face and he is always eager to get going. I often think of him as my four-wheel drive vehicle, as he is able to climb almost any incline and actually likes a challenge. An easy keeper, he has the energy and power of a much younger horse. He was born on Valentine's Day.

Peanut is everybody's favorite baby. He is the same age as Rocket, but he will always seem like the darling youngster of this equine family. With calm amber eyes, he is sweet and gentle. I have had Peanut since he was six months old, and it is a relief to know that he has never been mishandled. I know his history, and there has been nothing traumatic to warp his sense of trust. So these are the companions I have taken out on the range and through the Berkshire Hills over the course of this year as I grappled with my personal history and my mother's failing health.

On occasion, I rode other horses, in Mexico, Australia and India. Though these adventures were exciting and new experiences, I was always happy to return to Barranca and his familiar gaits. Understanding a horse's soul is more important than mere novelty. A personal relationship can only grow stronger as you bond with your horse, and care for him day after day. 

While I love the silence of riding by myself, I also enjoy showing family and friends my favorite spots, exploring new places I wouldn't dare go to alone, riding at dawn or under a full moon, meandering beside the Sonoita Creek where one can wander in and out of the water beneath the carved out bluffs, lying down in a field of wildflowers and dozing off in the sun or finding a surprising fresh trail. But the familiar can also be comforting. My familiar horses are my greatest comfort, along with my old broken-in saddle and well-worked reins. I hope in the course of this account, I can take you with me, and you too can take part in the mishaps and delights I have had the privilege to encounter this past year, lifting us into another realm, purging the daily grumble and allowing our spirits to soar.


Blue Moon on the San Rafael

The sun is still high at 4 p.m. when I drive my horse trailer over the rim of the San Rafael Valley and look out over this glorious prairie grassland surrounded by mountains. Tightening Tonka's girth, I head towards Saddle Mountain, bending east along the dirt road toward the headwaters of the Santa Cruz. As the sun begins its descent, light streaks over the rolling valley floor, lighting up the mountains in the distance.

Alone on this great expanse, I worry about images of drug runners and illegal transients. I might be naive, but I remind myself--What we mostly have to fear is fear itself. This land seems so gloriously peaceful. I don't want to waste my imagination picturing dangerous scenarios, but put them out of my mind and try to remain receptive.

Knowing it will get cold as soon as the sun disappears, I wear a burnt orange parka and gloves. Tonka-Waken, is a pale palomino Missouri Fox trotter, about 15.3. His thick winter coat is already warming up even though I am not pushing him. I keep stroking his withers, telling him that he is a good boy, and he seems to understand this.

There is something so soothing about riding alone, without the distraction of conversation—just listening to the horse's hooves on the hard packed road, hearing the swish of water in my plastic bottle strapped onto the back of my saddle. Everything is still and subdued. Tonka is a bit wary of his own elongated shadow at first, but then he moves right along with a nice fast walk, standing patiently when I have to dismount to open a cattle gate. 

Once I make it to Bog Hole, I check my watch—it is now 5:15.  I believe I should see the moon rise in less than half an hour. This will be a blue moon, the second full moon this month. I can see my trailer in the distance, a couple of miles away.

My neighbors, Al & Judy Blackwell, pass by me in their truck, with their two little granddaughters in the backseat. I have invited the girls to come over on the following morning, New Year's Day, to give them a ride on Peanut, my caramel-and-cream colored Tennessee Walker. He is still recovering from a night out on the range when all three of my horses escaped their corral through a feeble Mexican gate with a flimsy wooden bolt. (I have since added metal closures on either side.)  

The morning of their escape, I knew something was wrong as soon as I left the house and didn't see any waiting horses staring over the fence. The sight of the open gate confirmed my worst fears. I only hoped that they had remained inside the federal land that Sonny McQuiston leases for his cattle, but they know the terrain well enough from riding, and had found the open passage out onto the road. Tell-tale droppings lay right before the closest cattle guard, where they had stopped and turned, ending up on the Maury Road near McQuiston's paddock and his one lone horse.

Luckily, none of the three had been seriously injured, but Peanut had cut his fetlock on some barbed wire. I spent the past week doctoring his three-stitch cut, pasting on a pad soaked in antiseptic, and wrapping him with Christmas-colored red and green wrap, then duct tape. The little pad inevitably fell out during the night, so I was now simply spraying his wound, and watching the proud flesh gather. There is always something happening with horses.         

A month ago, when I trailered Barranca up to the San Rafael, he rode out nicely as always, but when I loaded him back into the trailer and retreated to shut the door, he broke free, jumped out and ran off with his tether flying. I felt stupid—not having tied a proper cowboy knot, and helpless, for out on this wide open range I had no hope of catching him on foot. All I could think of was more barbed wire and dangerous cattle guards.         

Panicked, I immediately called my husband Mason on my cell phone. He drove out, and we passed each other on the road as I pulled the empty trailer back home to pick up Tonka, thinking I might be able to catch Barranca on horseback before he got into trouble. By the time I returned with Tonka in tow, Mason was standing by the side of the road with Barranca tied to an oak tree. Two helpful men had caught my renegade and secured him. People take care of each other out here, and I was extremely grateful. Shaken, Barranca was quick to join his equine companion, and I had learned another lesson and escaped a close disaster.

This past year streams through my mind as I ride back up the darkening valley. I think of my mother, descending into Alzheimer's and wonder where this disease will take her. Her days are now only barely lit, as if she too is waiting in semi-darkness. Will we be able to resolve the conflict that has plagued us over the years?

I still detect no moon glow, and wonder if my calculations have been wrong. But just before I reach the dirt road that crosses the valley floor, I look to my left and catch the enormous upper lip of the golden saucer ascending above the mountains. Quickly, it rises, magnified in size, and a thrill goes through me—just seeing it makes me let out a whoop as I canter up the incline. Suddenly the moon is there in full form, balanced on the mountain line and rising surely, revealing its golden appearance as it continues to ascend, shedding its light on the last of the old year and the beginning of the next.