We were in my wilderness hunting camp 10 miles north of our ranch near Yellowstone Park that October morning. At 9,000 ft. above sea level the temperature dropped to around zero just before dawn and it was crackling cold. We had to be off well before first light. The best time for hunting is that narrow window when the glow of the sun gives just enough light to see, but before it comes up from behind the mountains. We had quite a long ride to get to the place where I wanted to be at the crucial time. The bleary eyed cook had revived the wood stove and fried us some eggs and bacon. Two of my guides and their hunters were likewise aroused and ready for the morning hunt. We hung our bridles near the fire so that the hard cold of the bits would not hurt the tender mouths of the horses.
A kerosene lantern hung from a branch by the corral and by its light we fed, saddled and bridled the horses. My much loved horse was Democrat. Several times his agility had pulled us narrowly away from the horns of charging buffalo and he and I had been through some scrapes together. I named him after my grandfather’s horse by the same name. A picture of the first Democrat and my grandfather, now almost a hundred years old, hangs today on the wall above my desk. A horse, like a wife or loyal friend, can make you look good and Democrat always did that for me.
We rode out in pitch blackness with no moon, but Democrat (his night vision was superb) found the faint trail north with no hesitation. It was so dark that I held my hand in front of my face to warn me of low hanging branches I could not see. After a half hour of this my hunter asked how on earth I could find my way. “Long practice”, I whispered, and then, in deference to a touch of honesty, “and I have a pretty good horse”.
We went north along the valley and then turned right on a game trail up the lip of a canyon entering the main stream. We climbed sharply for half a mile or so with a steep drop off to our right. We were close to the secret alpine meadow I wanted to reach and we were starting to have a little light. On trails like this Democrat always liked to stay on the outside. I think it is an instinct some horses have because while it takes them closer to the edge, it also allows them to see better around the next corner in case a predator might be coming. Democrat was pulling at the bit and entirely ready to keep going, but my hunter’s horse was starting to breathe hard and needed a rest so I stopped for a few minutes. Democrat was on the very edge of the cliff, but I remained serene as I had total confidence in this wise and extremely athletic animal with catlike agility.
With no warning horror struck and I stared sudden death in the face. Democrat was tilting inexorably toward the abyss and was going over. On my part there was no conscious thought. I simply dumped off ungracefully onto the upper side totally instinctively. It must have been the result of a lifetime on horseback when one’s reactions take over before real thought. I landed on the rocky trail on my knees struggling to cling to the side of the trail so that I would not follow Democrat. The pain in my knees was excruciating and it took a minute or two before I turned to my hunter and asked him if he knew what on earth had happened. He said that a rock on which Democrat’s hoof had been resting gave away, making him lose his balance. The hunter added that he was mighty glad it hadn’t happened to him because he would never have made it off the saddle in time.
I turned to my hunter and asked if I could borrow his rifle because, on the slim chance that Democrat could still be alive and suffering I wanted to give him the coup de grace. This was the least I could do for a noble animal and what I would have wanted done for me. I never liked to carry a firearm myself while guiding though I now think this was silly. Of course he let me take his rifle and I looked up and down unsuccessfully for a spot where I could see the bottom of the canyon. Then what seemed a miracle happened. From the bottom of the trail we heard a whinny and soon Democrat came galloping up that steep trail. I have had my share of euphoric moments in my life like my first jump when my parachute finally opened (I am deathly afraid of heights). There was never anything to compare with my joy at seeing Democrat with cuts and scratches, saddle in shreds, but no serious damage and as glad to be back with me as I was to be with him. Though he was an exceptionally agile horse, I will never understand quite how he could have survived that incredible fall, but there he was.
In seventy years of riding I have been privileged to know some superb horses. Some I have ridden for 20 years. They are a glorious part of my life and have enriched my existence immeasurably. If I ever get to heaven, it could hardly be that great a place unless they are there too.