By Robert Digitale
After spending four weeks with my packhorse in the High Sierras, I knew I wanted to venture forth again into the mountains. But I decided the next time I would ride, not walk beside, my little black mare.
After our trip in the summer of 1975, I took my horse back to my grandfather’s cattle ranch in the Gold Rush country near Jackson, Calif. That September, at age 19, I started junior college in Sacramento after a year away from school. But each month I went back to work on Grandpa’s ranch with my Dad and my uncles.
The mare remained a rebel. When she was in a fighting mood, she would rear up high and try to toss me out of the saddle, just as she had done in the months before the pack trip. At Grandpa’s direction, I rode her with spurs on my boots and a whip of bailing wire in my hand. Even so, I always had to be ready to hold on for dear life.
The next summer my father and I put the mare in the back of Grandpa’s old red Chevy pickup, which we outfitted with tall wooden side rails. We drove south on Highway 49 through the Mother Lode’s oak-covered hills and grasslands to Sonora, then east into the mountains above Pinecrest Lake. Near the Dodge Ridge ski area we stopped and unloaded my horse. All my gear was contained in saddle bags, with a sleeping bag and pad attached. I bid my dad farewell, climbed into the saddle and set off into the Emigrant Wilderness, bound for Bond Pass and the northern reaches of Yosemite National Park.
The mare and I passed along a main trail for about an hour. Suddenly I realized I had lost a canister containing a collapsible fishing pole. I turned the mare back toward home. I couldn’t find the canister, so I tried to swing my horse back to the east. She decided it was time to fight to go home. She reared up and lost her balance. We toppled off the trail and down an embankment. Somehow I managed to avoid getting trapped beneath her. Both of us seemed shaken by the fall. I climbed aboard once more and we proceeded east to a large meadow surrounded by forest and granite hills. There we camped for the night.
The next morning came a showdown. From the meadow we climbed steadily up an exposed hillside of white and silver rock, with patches of dirt and an occasional evergreen of stunted growth. The slope offered an expansive view of sky and forests. The trail included a series of granite staircases. We had climbed a few hundred feet in elevation when the mare turned for home. Her head began to jitter, the prelude to combat. Fearful at first, I let her step down onto one of the trail’s staircases. There I made an amazing discovery. With her front end pointing downhill, the mare couldn’t get the leverage she needed to rear up. Suddenly the battle turned, and I attacked with everything I had. My whip and spurs sent her twirling in circles, even as she continued down the mountain. Somehow she kept her footing on the narrow, uneven path, but she couldn’t rear up. On she spun and scrambled down the trail. On I fought her. She had reared and thrown me for more than a year. Now I had the upper hand.
At last we stopped about 100 yards down the trail. I dismounted and readjusted the cinch. We both seemed out of breath, but I didn’t dare let her rest. I mounted and we climbed back up the mountainside.
That morning provided a turning point. It was as if I rode a different horse for the rest of that week-long trip into the Yosemite back country. What relief I felt. In many ways I remained a rookie equestrian. But I had experienced a small victory, and after 16 months, I no longer regretted buying the mare.
Here are more stories about my horse, my grandfather and me: