These days when I go to sleep, I count hours of irrigation in a field, or I count horses. This is easy with my own small herd: two mustangs, three Quarter Horses, one paint. Maka and Painter; Kua, Lynx, and Doll (this one I did not name), and Maui. (You might notice a theme here with the Hawaiian names: Hawai`i in my heart.)
Counting wild horses in the 22,000-acre Spring Creek Basin Herd Management Area is much harder. Their colors vary (thank goodness), but even if you categorize them by color, you have gender, markings, size, age, social stature, and season to consider (colors change in fall and spring). Noting all these details of a horse might tell me who it is. But try identifying a white right hind fetlock across a mile of undulating turf, grass and the very air waving in the fieldglasses, the horse moving amongst others, or standing quite still, facing you across the distance, his eyesight and sense of smell dramatically more astute than yours. He–or she–can identify TJ carrying her camera and her heart across the wild rolling desert, and can also tell I am not her. So he–or she–may move off quickly, or keep facing me forever, so that I never glimpse that telling right hind leg.
Not to be sexist, but I am learning the horses by their band stallions (which, like their color, changes). The other day, riding out into the basin with the 4 Corners Back Country Horsemen for the purpose of counting horses, we came up over a gray ridge and there stood a gray stallion, backed by a pinto mare, sorrel filly, black mare, black foal, a bay bachelor stallion, and an unidentifiable (to me) second gray stallion, who snaked in toward the band stallion when his attention was diverted, by us.
“That’s Seven,” I said. “Yes, 7,” said one of the other riders, scribbling on a scrap of paper resting on a saddle horn. “No, Seven,” I said, and the rider repeated, “7.” Well, yes, there were seven horses, but, “The band stallion, Seven.” “Oh!”
By this time the two gray stallions had reared at each other, Seven flashing hooves and fire at the younger, darker gray, and the mares had fled. “Puzzle and Tesora. Shadow and her new colt, Pitch. Who’s the other gray stallion? And the bay?”
The riders rode on. My horse wouldn’t stand still enough for me to see through fieldglasses I wore like a heavy necklace. The mustangs had moved off down into an arroyo anyway, Seven following his mares, the extra stallions following him. “I can’t remember the name of the bay,” I said. The riders ignored me. “I have to tell TJ there’s another gray tormenting Seven.”
Apparently I was talking to Kua, whom I know well–deep glistening bay, no white markings anywhere, strong, wary of people, the backbone on which I rode that day. My backbone. But he was ignoring me, too.
So I shut up and followed the saddled, demure, domestic horses. Then, “Copper!” I said, to nobody in particular. Or maybe to TJ, who would quiz me later. “The bay–Copper!”
No one–not Kua or the other riders or their horses–cared in the least. But I did.
As I drift back over the day, heading toward sleep, I see Copper in my mind: a light bay, two white left pasterns, standing in the shadow of junipers, watching Seven and his mares, waiting…