Joe is a real cowboy, or at least he totally looks the part. He’s all blue-jeans, a big hat, droopy moustache, leather chaps and lovely musical silver spurs. As he walks about getting us mounted on our horses he spurs make a great tinkling sound as the strike against the ground – a sound that makes me think of gunfights at high noon. That same sound formed the background music throughout our ride through the Californian hills.
From the beginning it was clear that this was a little different to the other riding experiences on this trip. For a start the horses were big; no ponies here. Declan looked tiny on the back of his huge steed. Then there was the Western saddles, with their raised saddle horn and cantle, and the Western bridle which you hold with one hand instead of two. I must say I found the Western saddle much more comfortable than the ones we used in Scotland and Iceland.
We rode up a little “crick” at the bottom of a tree-lined valley with Joe pointing out the various trees and plants on the way. After a while crisscrossing the creek in dappled sunlight we started upwards into the clear air of the valley ridge. There we found enormous views all the way out to the ocean and dry embankments dotted with yucca and cactus. The valley forms part of a National Forest preserve and is filled with oak and sycamore trees; dragonflies flit amongst their branches and there are deer tracks along the path. Overhead buzzards ride the thermals with only the mildest twitch of their outstretched wingtips.
We couldn’t have visited the States without having a cowboy experience and our ride with Joe certainly fitted the bill. The funny thing, as the more observant might spot in the pictures, is that we didn’t wear our normal hats – which do look sort of cowboy-like and so would have nicely complemented the experience. When we said we wanted helmets, Joe and his colleague looked at us like we were some strange beasts: “We don’t get many folks round here that want helmets”, Joe drawled “Y’all must be from Europe, right?” When I explained we were Australian but had last ridden in Iceland with a Swiss guide, Joe shook his head and said, “Well, that sure ain’t the Western way.”