Little Horse on the Prairie

Actress Imogen Stubbs conquers her fear of horses and is revived by the outdoor life and wild landscape on a working ranch in Wyoming.

review3I have always had a crippling fear of horses. I could not come within 50 yards of one without a mixture of terror and Patti Smith pounding through my head:

“Horses horses coming in in all directions white shining silver studs with their nose in flames”

This fear made riding impossible, and lost me several rather wonderful acting roles. Paradoxically, I have always fantasised about cantering cowboy-style through sagebrush prairies, a lone harmonica playing in the distance, my mind and body working in harmony with my horse, Nature, Robert Redford, and so on.

This dream seems to be shared by many friends of mine also caught in that shark-infested thornbush known as Middle Youth-possibly because The High Chaparral was virtually the only programme on television during our Early Youth. More recently, bestsellers such as The Horse Whisperer have also stimulated a desire to see beyond what protects and encloses us, to see life as a series of beginnings, rather than unopened doors and forlorn if-onlys. So, with this in mind, I cut off my hair, started learning the saxophone, and set off with my friend, Yasmin (a brilliant rider and indomitable photographer) to conquer the Wild West-sort of Thelma and Louise go pony-trekking. I kept a rather sketchy journal.

Day one
Planned to drive across Utah and Wyoming to Bitterroot Ranch, which lies at the head of a remote valley in the Absaroka mountains.

Flew to Minneapolis, where huge signs and videos announced a ‘No dairy produce’ regulation. Yasmin confessed she had bought a Stilton as a present for our hosts. Held up in customs and by sniffer dogs, and missed the connection to Salt Lake City.

Spent the night wandering around the largest shopping mall in America, which contained a roller-coaster, the biggest Snoopy in the world, talking waste-paper bins, and that acme of invention, mug-o’-lunch-boeuf bourguignon in a cup.

Day two
Arrived at Salt Lake City and saw our first cowboy. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a cowboy-shaped fax machine. Also saw an astonishing number of bottoms the size of small automobiles. Perhaps people feel compelled to expand widthways to fill in the big open spaces of the Midwest.

Hire car turned out to be a disappointingly un-Sam Shepardy town car, but, undeterred, we put in our B.B. King cassette, and drove off whooping with the thrill of it all.

An hour and a half later, we pulled into a dingy gas station to get directions from a trucker wearing a ‘Virginity Sucks’ T-shirt. Travelled on through a snowstorm in Utah into dazzling sunshine in Wyoming. Made mistake of asking for fresh vegetables in a 24-hour diner: ‘I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t understand the concept.’

The vast blue skies and prairies dotted with cattle were unbelievably impressive. Mobile-home parks and signs such as ‘Don’t let immigration ruin Wyoming’ were less impressive.

After seven hours of driving, we were lost again, and staggered into the Ramshorn saloon to ask directions. Drunken red-faced hunters fell silent as we entered; Yasmin is Anglo-Indian, and clearly therefore intent on ruining Wyoming, so we panicked and ran out.

Finally arrived up the bumpy sixteen-mile drive at Bitterroot Ranch, where there were lights in the windows and smoke coming out of the chimney. The ranch hands tore themselves away from a sub-titled European film to give us a lovely supper of fresh vegetables.

Fell asleep in our own log cabin listening to the river, the moody mumblings of Gerard Depardieu on the television, and the distant sound of horses moving in the darkness.

Day three
Woke up to a view of snow-capped mountains, a partially frozen river, and a llama smoking a roll-up. It turned out to be an illusion created by the llama simultaneously chewing a stick and exhaling on a frosty morning, but it had us fooled. Breakfast in main house of waffles, eggy bread-the works.

The wranglers and ranch hands all very friendly – all very female. A couple of other girls were up at the hunting lodge with the hunters and a load of dead elk, but they were returning because of the grizzly bears. We listened agog. Wondered if hunters like to eat elk-in-a-mug.

Met Mel and Bayard Fox, who own the ranch. She is a lovely, bright Englishwoman who grew up in East Africa, and is passionate about animals, riding and Stilton. Bayard is a softly spoken American, a well-travelled Yale graduate with something of the James Stewart about him.

We went through the farm to ‘wrangle’ the horses up on the prairie. This is blatantly a working farm, not a kitsch dude ranch. Views in every direction quite breathtaking: unspoilt primitive territory including a glacier, the Continental Divide, the Shoshone National Forest (larger than Wales), areas of huge rust-coloured rock, hills of volcanic ash, prairies that take on an almost lunar aspect. It is higher than Ben Nevis here, which explains why each breath feels as if you have just eaten a packet of extra-strong mints.

The horses (about 183 strong) were all types – brown, spotty, shaggy, big Doberman-looking things (in horse jargon, they are Quarter, Appaloosa, Icelandic, and Arab breeds). From behind a fence, I urged Yasmin to stand among them and take some Malboro-ad-type photos while they stampeded past. In fact, the recent Marlboro ads were shot here – which explains why the scenery kept making me want a cigarette.

Appropriate horses were kitted up. I assumed I would be on one called Old Softy or Mr Ploddy, so Mustang Lady came as a bit of a shock.

Chucked down half a bottle of Rescue Remedy and put on all three padded jackets and a crash helmet. Mel talked me through her riding philosophy of bonding, not dominating, while I clambered on to Mustang Lady. When I heard myself say ‘Good dog!’, I realized that I was insanely nervous. Nevertheless, the pommel offered great security, a bit like being on a carousel horse, and tapping the neck with the rein to steer made more sense than yanking at the mouth or kicking. The horses seemed to have none of the nervy, eye-rolling weirdness I associate with stabled animals.

Yasmin galloped off to look for moose on the Indian reservation. I went for a slow, confidence-boosting ride with beauteous wrangler Susannah.

Over lunch, Bayard apologized for the fact there were no other guests, it being off-season. Usually, there would be twenty-odd people going on picnic rides, four-day treks, cattle drives, even dancing in the big room to the piano. I hastened to reassure him I was happy, and simply grateful to be still alive.

Afternoon ride less daunting, though aware that, looking like a New York motorcycle cop from hell, I was lowering the tone of the landscape. Rode through a forest of Douglas firs and beaver dams. Actually started enjoying myself. Bayard pointed out flowers, rock formations, fresh coyote tracks…I kept expecting him to drop to the ground and listen for distant drums. Suddenly, he pointed excitedly to something in the distance. I thought it must be Harrison Ford (who lives nearby) but it was only a golden eagle.

When I dismounted at the end of the day, my body felt as if it had recently given birth. After an informal dinner, we sat in front of a roaring fire discussing journeys and looking at photos of other Equitour trips – Rajasthan, Ecuador, Mayan jungle…As someone who rarely travels beyond Chiswick High Road, I felt a teeny bit dull.

Day four
Yas suggested we put plasters on the insides of our legs to prevent rubbing. I was reminded of the time a make-up girl put Pocahontas sticky plasters on my nipples to prevent the director overstepping a ‘no nudity’ contract.

Much more confident about riding despite being given a different horse each time (to prevent superstitious reliance on one animal). Horses responded to every nuance of neck rope and verbal direction – shouldn’t have been surprised if someone had whipped out a remote control.

We trotted to the most beautiful place I have ever been: a huge prairie surrounded by mountains, with a silence so complete you could suddenly hear your own heart. Blue birds flew up as we passed (and they are so blue!), and there were young antelopes grazing all around us. Actually, they looked at me with understandable disdain: ‘Whoa! Retro-chic fashion violation. Not on the same page, dude.’ We were alone in this vast space – no litter, no boy scouts, no shops selling Kendal mint cake – no trace of modern life. We ended up herding cattle through a river into the Indian territory, and I run out of adjectives to express the thrill of it all.

Night-time. There are yelps coming from the bathroom: ‘Oh no! Oh my God!’ The spontaneous depilation caused by removing sticking plaster must be one of life’s most painful experiences.

Day five
Felt dishonourable but, after riding in the mountains all morning, decided to drive into Dubois. View from the car spectacular, but soulless compared with the view from a horse.

Dubois is a one-moose town (which lives in all its plastic splendour on the roof of the laundromat). Other highlights include a bar in an old gold-mine, a teepee campsite, and shops selling genuine Indian mini-papooses for anyone wishing to strap a gerbil to her back. Best of all is the shack with Buffalo Bill galloping across the roof clutching in his hand not a gun, not a telegram, but a decaff cappuccino – the Pony Expresso.

Drove back as the sun was setting. The sinewy landscape looked like the desert/body shots in The English Patient, except the sagebrush gave it a greenish hue – more like a naked Kristin Scoot Thomas with mildew.

Day six
Woke up impatient to ride and full of a real, pure energy, not the hyperactive caffeine kind. Terrifyingly unfamiliar sensation.

I cantered uphill and got all cocky and Lone Rangery until I got thwacked in the face by a branch. As we then cantered across the plateau, I suddenly experienced utter peace. I realised that I was dreaming into the landscape not separating myself from it – I had even stopped worrying whether the red curtains I’d ordered just before we left would look like open-heart surgery.

Bayard caught two huge trout for lunch, and we had home-reared lamb for dinner (I hoped not one I had patted earlier) and lots of wine. Afterwards, we played a nerve-racking game of Scrabble – the wranglers came up with words such as ‘zabaglione’ and ‘xenophobia’. Yas and I came up with ‘bet’ and ‘too’ and stuck an ‘s’ on all their long words. We then proceeded to play a duet on the piano while singing a song made out of all the words on the Scrabble board, at which point everyone disappeared.

Day seven

After a sad leave-taking, we drove back to Salt Lake City via Jackson Hole, which meant we got to see the spectacular Teton mountains in a Barbara Cartland pink sunset. Jackson Hole was a choc-a-bloc with ‘natural gift ideas’ such as moose-turd earrings and eco-fleece sweaters made from ‘fibre produced from recycled beverage bottles’.

Can I honestly say I am no longer frightened of horses? No. I still quake at the sight of flared nostrils and sweaty flanks, but I am not afraid of riding Western saddle on a horse that lives in a herd and is accustomed to different riders.

Just before we left, I was asked by the Discovery channel to take part in an eight-day cattle drive through the Grand Canyon. It is a measure of my transformation that, if I had been free, I would unquestionably have said yes.

Reprinted courtesy of Harpers & Queen, July 1998/National Magazine Company