Scary Stories 3
The summer after I graduated college, I went on summer staff for a guest ranch in Colorado. I primarily worked on rotation staff — waitressing, kitchen crew, and housekeeping — but after a few weeks was drafted to co-lead the teen program on busy weeks.
Teen program weeks were easily my favorite of the entire summer (and, looking back, such an indicator of what I’d spend a lot of time doing later on). We wrangled whatever students were there with their families for the week on hikes, horseback rides, random group activities, and frequent trips into town. I got insanely good at parking a 15-passenger van while being heckled by 15-year-old boys.
“Scary” moments, as we’re calling them, abounded in that role — from the lighthearted (praying not to die while whitewater rafting with a bunch of teenagers who didn’t listen to a single word of our guide’s instructions) to the heavy (approaching a mom about her daughter’s bulimia, which I’d picked up on because of my own history). But for this post, we’re focusing on just one — and one of the former, because the latter aren’t just mine to tell.
Late in the summer, I was doing my usual on one of the aforementioned horseback rides. I always hung back, sweeping the group and making sure no one wandered too far off path or got left behind entirely.
I was on Carrie, my favorite mule. Staff members who were at least somewhat competent riders tended to be given greener animals to break in for guests down the line; but I had lucked out being paired early on with Carrie. She was huge; a steady and smooth ride with the personality to match, and just plucky enough to still be fun. (I was confused about why she wasn’t deemed ready for guests until the first time we did a river crossing together. Petrified of water, as it turns out. Girl flipped a lid. Midway through the summer, it rained heavily on a ride, and I thought she was going to have a heart attack right under me. My friend Phillip nodded at me solemnly when we got back to the barn and told me “good sit” — his way of saying, “I can’t believe you didn’t fall off of her at some point during that ride.” It was honestly one of my prouder moments of the summer.)
ANYWAY, Carrie and I were watchdogging a fresh group of teenagers on the trail, when we reached an open area. The wrangler leading the ride, my friend Steve, decided to let the kids cut loose and run for a bit, and I watched as one horse, then another, realized what was going on and took off, kids whooping with fear and/or delight as they hung on for dear life.
One other, quick, important note here: I’d mentioned Carrie was a mule. A mule, for the uninitiated, is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse. They vary in size, but are often thicker-set than horses and have enormous ears. Sure-footed, sturdy, and smart, they’re usually great for uneven terrain and inexperienced riders.
But not Satan’s Mule.
I’m going to be honest, I don’t remember the actual name of this mule, and I don’t care, either. He was a wiry little red thing, and he was evil, and I wasn’t supposed to badmouth him then because it sounded bad if guests heard and the wranglers said he had a good heart but you know what? I was right, and he did not have a good heart, and sometimes you just know.
Anyway, on this particular, beautiful, teen trail ride day, we happened to have a 15-year-old girl atop Satan’s Mule, and as all of his friends galloped away, he got a little too excited. I watched in light horror as he took off at a frenzied pace and began bucking wildly, taking exactly three seconds to dump his rider with a thud to the ground.
Steve beat me to the girl, and we both jumped down to check on her. I don’t remember her exact reaction, but I do remember going and catching the loose mule for her, locking eyes with him, and realizing with minor dread what was about to happen.
I grew up riding, but my skills had faded enough to make me doubt myself on spunkier animals. There was a good chance this mule would throw me to the dirt, too, and I was scared to death of it; but the girl was going to refuse to get back on him, I could already tell, and he was still wound up too tight to be ridden by anyone who would let him spring again. (Or, at the very least, wouldn’t be an insurance liability if he did.)
That meant me or Steve would have to ride him, and the girl would have to ride whatever animal was left behind. Steve was on a beautiful but very young and entirely unpredictable horse, just getting broken in. No guest could ride that, and I knew I probably couldn’t, either; which left me with basically one option.
“She can take Carrie,” I heard myself say. Steve glanced up from where he was crouched on the ground, expertly consoling. I watched his wheels turn, running through the options I just had. “What do you think?” he asked the girl, still seated. She sniffled, and looked warily at Carrie.
“She’s a good one,” I promised. “Super sweet.”
She hesitated, then nodded, and we helped her aboard. I felt a twinge of jealousy as I handed her Carrie’s reins, then turned to face my fears in a very literal sense. I felt my nerves flutter as I stepped towards Satan’s Mule, not at all confident I could handle him as well as I’d let on.
Mounting didn’t offer any encouragement, as he began spinning while I tried unsuccessfully to throw my leg over the saddle. “Steve,” I finally growled through gritted teeth, and he hopped back down and held the mule until I was firmly in my stirrups, snickering as he let go and abandoned me to circle him a few more times until he seemed a little more under control.
The entire ride back to the ranch, I was on edge — hyper-aware of how much leeway I was giving and trying not to pass my nerves to the enemy. He twitched, sidestepped, and tugged the whole way home, begging me to give him a chance to misbehave as I watched Carrie calmly walking ahead with light bitterness in my heart.
Somewhere along the way, though, I felt some instincts come back to me that I hadn’t yet had to test. I sensed when he was lowering to buck and pulled up my reins. I remembered how much smaller he was in comparison to the other horses and mules I’d ridden that summer, and shifted my weight to steer with my legs. By the time we reached the barn, I wasn’t sad to dismount, but I also wasn’t scared anymore. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised.
By being forced to put myself in a scary situation, I’d learned I was more capable than I thought, and it changed how I rode the rest of the summer. I stand by my claims of evil in the heart of that mule, but I will concede some of my personal growth to him. I guess, for that, he’s not all bad.
Moral of the story? Try doing stuff you’re not sure you can every now and then. You’ll probably surprise yourself.
Also, I miss Carrie now.