The Universe Sent Me a Cowboy
A story about an adventure that was made possible by a positive attitude
As we drove into the Jasper Park Lodge in Jasper, Canada, we passed the riding stables. After days of touring through the Canadian Rockies by train and motor coach, I thought it would be fun to see more on horseback. My brother and I were staying right in Jasper National Park.
I had to consider my safety. Even though I have been riding for the last 18 years, it has always been at the stable in New Jersey that specializes in lessons for people with disabilities. They are able to safely get me on and off the horse using a specialized ramp where the horses are trained to “parallel park” so I can sit down backwards and volunteers help swing my legs into place and put my feet in the special stirrups that offer more stability and security than traditional stirrups. I use what are known as “ladder reigns” that allow me to control the horse using only my functioning right hand. I sit on an English saddle. I knew horses on trail rides use western saddles.
I decided to seize this rare opportunity to go on a trail ride in beautiful Jasper National Park. I would just be careful.
When I called to make the reservation, I specifically asked if they would be able to accommodate someone with a disability. I asked if there would be men there to help me. They explained that there are steps to climb to help get up on the horse, and assured me that there would be men. I know my limitations, and I knew men would be necessary for my safety. I made a reservation for a one hour ride. My brother, who was traveling with me, opted out but said he would come to take photos at the stable.
After a sunny warm morning, clouds rolled in and it started to rain hard just before my appointment. There was thunder and lightning and I started to wonder if this was a good idea. How would I manage without my special stirrups and reigns?
I brought my rain poncho and mustered up my courage. I have clocked numerous hours on a horse. I decided that everything would be fine.
I was greeted at the stables by a group of young women. There were no men in sight.
I asked if they had a helmet I could wear. When one woman asked “Are you sure you want to do this in the storm because there is a chance the horses will get spooked by the thunder?” I told her “Sure, I’ll do it and I won’t have any of that. I won’t have my horse getting spooked.” I signed the release and consent form. The woman looked at me like I had three heads. I was bound and determined to make this a positive experience.
Next, she offered me a rain coat that was designed for riding because it covered your legs. My poncho wouldn’t protect me as much so I put on the borrowed coat.
I watched the group of riders that were heading out before me mount their horses. The mounting blocks were just steps with no hand rails. There were 2 small children and their parents. They easily climbed up the steps and hopped on the horses, swinging their leg over and putting their feet in the stirrups. I was afraid.
It was still raining with thunder when it was my turn to mount the horse. All of the stable employees were young women. My brother was outside the ring taking photos.
I held onto one woman as I climbed the steps. The horse walked through the mounting blocks and stood in the middle next to me. The instructor told me to swing my right leg over while standing on my affected left leg. The young woman I held onto to climb the stairs told me her mother has MS so she is familiar with disabilities. I asked her if her mother rides. Sadly, she said the MS had progressed too far for that to be possible anymore.I pictured mounting the horse, but was pretty sure I couldn’t do it. I danced around for several minutes thinking I would find a better arrangement for my feet. I asked the instructors if there were any strong men available to help. There were none.
Finally, I asked if my brother could come in to help. He is reasonably strong and knows exactly how my disabilities work.
He climbed up the steps and asked me what I needed him to do. I asked him to support my weak left hip and I would just go for it if he would support me. I decided to take off the rain coat because it was strapped around my legs and felt it was restricting my already limited movement.
I took a breath. I made up my mind. He braced himself on my left side and through some miracle of determination I swung my leg over the top of the horse. I adjusted my seat in the usual way. The staff put my feet in the stirrups. The reigns were tied together so they could be operated one handed.
I think the young women got a little scared. Once I was on the horse, they checked in to see if I felt ok. I knew once I got on, I would be fine.
Through my anxiety during the mounting process, I failed to notice the weather had cleared up. The guide told me to follow her. She was very young. and her name was Julie. We went into the forest. We walked through thick stands of trees. It was a beautiful way to look at the trees up close. We emerged from the forest to see the Canadian Rockies and the Athabasca River.
Julie and I chatted as we rode. This was a skill that took me a long time to develop because I was never relaxed enough to ride and carry on a conversation. I asked her about her mom and her illness. We talked about my history of learning how to ride a year after I was disabled by a severe stroke. She asked me if I lived with anyone back home. I explained that I am separated from my husband and live with my two sons. I was impressed when Julie responded that she was sorry to hear that since she was only around 24 years old.
I was mostly able to relax and enjoy the scenery for most of the ride without too much concern for how I would dismount safely. Julie pointed out rivers, mountains and wildlife. We saw bald eagles and osprey nests.
I was relieved to see we were heading back the way we came because I was getting tired of sitting tall in the saddle. The ride back to the barn was just as beautiful as the ride out.
My horse parked in between two sets of mounting steps and stood still for me to get off. My brother had gone back to the hotel room for a nap. Several young women came over to the blocks to help. I knew dismounting is much easier because gravity is a help.
It was a simple matter of getting one foot onto the block then having the helpers swing my other leg over the horse’s neck. I held onto the woman who was standing on the block for dear life.
I sat with the group of women in the barn while waiting for the golf cart to drive me back to my room. We determined that I have been riding nearly as long as most of them have been alive.
After quieting my worries about tack, mounting and dismounting, I had a perfectly enjoyable, scenic ride through Jasper National Park.
We continued our adventure in Banff National Park where again we passed riding stables on the way to our hotel. The Chateau was situated on the magnificent Lake Louise at the foot of Victoria Glacier. I wasn’t sure about taking another trail ride with so many unknowns about who could help and whether the facility’s tack would be suitable for me.
We toured the park and enjoyed some of the most magnificent mountain scenery of our trip. The day before we were scheduled for departure, my brother suggested I inquire about the riding. He said he would go with me even though it wasn’t really his thing. The offerings ranged from a minimum two hour ride to all day excursions. Two hours is a long time to ride rugged trails. After a bit of hemming and hawing, I decided to make this a positive experience and just seize the opportunity. I booked a two hour ride for both of us at 9:30 the next morning. Check out was at noon.
The weather was beautiful in the morning. The concierge told me it was a two minute walk to the stables. When you have a mobility challenge, there is no such thing. I got a head start ahead of my brother. He quickly caught up.
We checked in with the man at the counter of the little shed next to the corral for the horses. He didn’t have our reservation, and suggested it might be with the other stable that is sometimes used by the hotel. We called the hotel concierge to ask which stables they had booked and were told it was never confirmed because we did not bring them our credit card after we called. My brother incorrectly assumed they would access the card that was on file with the front desk. We did not have a reservation, but the clerk told us he had availability for the 9:30 ride and we could pay him directly.
I tried on several ill fitting helmets before I found one that would stay on my head securely. While we waited our turn to mount, I looked around for strong men. I didn’t see any.
There was a small hike uphill to the mounting area. We stood outside the fence where the horses were waiting to be brought up to the mounting blocks.
There were a few groups of people waiting to go on the 9:30 AM ride. I looked down the hill and saw a man who looked to be about 30 years old wearing a cowboy hat. I wondered if he was an employee. The man who sold us our tickets looked overweight and out of shape. The cowboy looked very fit.
I watched the other riders mount on mounting blocks that looked very old and rickety where there were no handrails again. It looked more ominous than the blocks in Jasper. I looked at the cowboy again. I asked my brother if he thought he worked there. He replied he thought he was another paid rider. I was hopeful he would be able to help me.
After a few groups left on the trail, my brother and I were called to the mounting area. The cowboy saw me struggle to walk up the hill with my cane. I silently prayed he could help me.
I walked to the steps for mounting. My brother helped me get up the wooden steps. They were worn and cracking. I felt off balance when I stood at the top. The horse was brought in between the mounting blocks. He stood there still waiting for me to hop on. The guide suggested I step on the stirrup with my affected left foot and swing my right leg over the horse. I immediately knew this was not going to happen. I explained to the guide that my left foot is paralyzed and there was no way I was going to do this.
My brother suggested trying to turn the horse around so I could try stepping on my stronger right foot instead. It was around this time that the cowboy approached the blocks. He asked me if I wanted help. I was thrilled to know I would now be safe.
He seemed to know what I was dealing with. He asked me what I needed him to do.
I first thought we should introduce ourselves.
What’s your name?
Landon Hughes, ma’am.
Hi. I’m Victoria. Where are you from?
North Carolina, ma’am.
Nice to meet you.
My first instinct was for him to brace my weak left hip so I could step on my right. We started to engineer my mount. Then he wanted to know if he should just pick me up and put me on the horse.This sounded good, but a little scary.
I mustered up my courage. I visualized stepping up into the stirrups and swinging my leg over. I checked in with Landon. I thought it would help if he could lift me some after I stepped up. We agreed on a plan.
He stood very close and I clung to him. I was very frightened. There was a small gap between the horse and the block. He quietly reassured me “I got ya’. Don’t worry.” I became aware of his brute strength and solid build. There was no way he was going to allow me to fall.
Now that I felt safe, I stepped into the stirrup. Landon held onto me and picked me up and onto the saddle as I swung my leg over. My upper body fell forward onto the horse’s neck and I felt powerless to right myself. I tried pushing up on my arms but I couldn’t.
Can you please pick up my upper body?
Landon took hold of me and easily pulled me up. I adjusted my seat, picked up my head, saw the small group who had been watching me, smiled, and said, “Wow, that was easy!” We all had a nervous laugh.
The guide asked if I was ok once I was sitting up. I felt fine.
I was moved near the fence to wait for the rest of the riders to mount. My brother was placed next to me after easily mounting his horse. Our horses were a little antsy.
Soon Landon rode over on a very large horse and parked next to me.
What do you do in North Carolina?
I ride rodeo. I do team roping. Sometimes I’m a heeler and sometimes I’m a header.
How old were you when you started doing that?
I was seven years old when my daddy put me on a horse. We live on a farm. We raise cattle.
He pulled out his cell phone.
We had this calf down by the river and we had a flood. If the calf can’t stand up it can’t eat. We rescued this one from the river and here it is now.
He showed me a photo of a black baby calf. He was very proud. We made a few more minutes of small talk about his career with the rodeo and I told him about my history of learning how to ride a year after I became disabled by a stroke when I was 35.
In a few minutes we were instructed to follow the leader, Julia. She told us to keep close to the rider in front of us. The trail was muddy and the horses walked elbow deep in it. It was a lot of work to stay put in the saddle with the horses struggling to move their feet through the deep mud.
When we had been on the rugged trail for about half an hour, I realized two hours of this was going to be tough, but worth it. We were riding parallel to the blue green Lake Louise with steep mountains all around. My stirrups were too long on my left side making it hard to keep my paralyzed foot in it. When my foot fell out, I felt insecure in the saddle.
I hollered for help from Julia who was far in front of the line of riders. She circled back to where I was, hopped off her horse, held onto its lead, walked over and put my foot back. She climbed back on her horse and rode back to the front of the line.
There were many hikers and mountain climbers who marveled at the horses passing by. I was grateful to be on a horse since the terrain would be out of the question for me on foot.
Parts of the trail brought us close to the edge of steep drop offs but the horses seemed to know what they were doing. I felt like a bad ass cowgirl riding along the edge of rocky cliffs with magnificent views of the lake and sky.
All of this rugged terrain and spectacular scenery was slowly wearing me out, but we had two full hours before we finished riding to the end of the Lake and back.
Mostly, we rode through muddy trails, but we also crossed some streams in the dense forest.
My left foot came out of the stirrup multiple times because the tack wasn’t quite right for me. Julia tried to shorten the stirrup after one such incident, but determined it was on the shortest hole on the buckle. She tried tying it up a little shorter, but it only helped a little.
The next time my foot fell out, Landon rode back to my spot in line, effortlessly pulled up alongside my horse, leaned over and put my foot back where it belonged. He owned the big horse he was riding.
We cleared the trees and approached a wooden foot bridge. Julia veered left to bypass the bridge and walked to a large clearing at the shallow end of the lake. The water was inches deep at the far end of Lake Louise at the foot of the Victoria glacier.
We were surrounded by mountains on three sides with Lake Louise stretched out in the direction of our hotel. We seemed to lose control of our horses as they appeared to know we had reached the end of the trail and it would soon be time to head back to the stables.
There was a disorderly wandering around the shallow, sandy flat end of the lake. The scenery was remarkably beautiful and everyone wanted their photo taken. I was afraid to take my phone out of my pocket. I was relieved to have reached the end of the first half of the ride.
My brother was good at getting out his phone and shooting some photos for Landon and his fiancé. He gave the phone to Julia who was able to walk around and take some good shots of us.
Julia rounded everyone up to follow her back into the trail through the forest. By now my foot was doing better at staying put.
The ride back was about the same as the ride out with gorgeous scenery in reverse. I had some time to wonder how dismounting would go but knew Landon would make it his business to make sure I was safe. He was a southern gentleman who happened to be exceptionally strong.
When we got back to the corral, Landon quickly hopped off his horse and came around to see where I was. The guides led my horse next to the mounting block where Landon was waiting. I asked him to catch me after I swung my left leg over the horse’s neck and make sure my feet stayed on the block.
This was easily accomplished. I took a few minutes to get my legs back under me as they were fatigued from two hours of holding onto the horse. Landon helped me walk down the rickety steps of the block. He walked me all the way back down the steep hill to a picnic table where I needed to sit for a few minutes before walking back to the hotel.
Landon sat with my brother and I. I thanked him profusely for his help in making the beautiful ride possible for me.
He said “My grandpappy had a stroke and I had to get him up on a horse and he weighed 270 lbs. so I know all about people who have had strokes. I used to pick him up and put him on.”
My brother asked how much I weigh.
I told them I weigh about 150 lbs. Now I knew why the Lord sent me a cowboy.
This adventure proved to me once more that usually no matter how much we worry about something, if we keep a positive attitude somehow things will work out.