A Hard Winter Ride
- March 16, 2023
- Jan Swan Wood
It was the winter of 1993 and by February the country was absolutely buried in snow. We were living at the ranch with my folks that winter. My then husband was working away from home and I helped my Dad on the ranch. The road into the ranch was about three miles long, through some deep draws and across open prairie. It had been plowed enough times that it was a veritable tunnel when it was opened up and was taller than the cab on our 3⁄4 ton pickup. With no good way to throw the snow back away from the cut, it filled in and got deeper and harder with every storm. The wind simply never quit blowing the new and old snow, and it had come from every direction but south so there were drifts on every side of anything that stuck up. Every day my Dad and I struggled through getting the stock fed and corrals dug out. It felt like it would never end and that the sun would never shine again.
The weather wasn’t the only concern either, as Dad had been fighting a case of the crud, which was made worse by his asthma damaged lungs and some heart problems. He coughed until he would nearly collapse and had a fever that wouldn’t go down. He was very sick and finally let Mom call his doctor, though there was no way to get out to go see him. His doctor was certain he had pneumonia by this point and would get a prescription for some virulent antibiotics and inhalers off right away. Getting them in our hands was the next challenge so the phone calls started.
A friend who worked in Sturgis would pick the prescription up and deliver to a neighbor who would bring it out to the mailbox if he could get down the county road in his 4 x 4. All I had to do was get to the mailbox as close to his arrival as possible and get the prescriptions. The inhalers didn’t dare freeze, so the timing had to be right. I knew it would take hours to ride the relatively short distance because the snow was knee to belly deep on a horse. The winter horse was reliable Sailor. He was 17 hands tall and tougher than rawhide, well fed and fit. I saddled him up, tied a gunny sack on the back of my saddle for the mail, and wallered on him wearing all the layers I could get on. It was below zero when I left the house, with a keen northeast wind blowing.
Keeping to the ridges and higher ground, we avoided the deepest snow in the draws. As it was, the snow was hard enough that about every third foot Sailor put down would break through the crust. That’s hard going for a horse and it jars them each time it breaks. If we could have stayed on top it wouldn’t have been so bad. The hard crust also rasps on their legs. Thankfully Sailor had a generous amount of winter hair and fetlock grown out to protect his.
We were less than a quarter mile from the mailbox, crossing a flat, when I saw the neighbor stop and leave the prescription at the mailbox. He honked to say he’d spotted me and I waved. Once we got to the fence along the county road, I let Sailor rest and catch his breath while I walked over the drift on the fence and filled my gunny sack with mail. The prescription bag got tucked inside my shirt to keep Dad’s inhaler from freezing.
I led Sailor a ways before getting on him. My feet and legs were cold and the walking helped them. I stayed on top of the snow for the most part, but poor Sailor just kept falling through. His winter hair was soaked with sweat from the effort. His face was frosted up and his whiskers had ice balls on them. My feet finally got to circulating enough blood to tingle, so I got back on. Sailor forged on toward home. The last quarter mile up from the bridge to the house I led him and let him cool off a bit on the
shallower snow we were in.
At the house, I left Sailor and took Dad’s medicine in to him, then led Sailor to the barn and got him unsaddled. I brushed him dry and got his hair fluffed up again. He got a manger full of hay and access to a heated waterer right there in the barn. I’d always known he had heart and was plain tough, but I think that ride was probably the hardest ride I ever put on him. The round trip had taken over six hours. Oh, and the medicine got Dad back on his feet within a week or so.
About Jan Swan Wood
Jan was raised on a ranch in far western South Dakota. She grew up horseback working all descriptions of cattle, plus sheep and horses. After leaving home she pursued a post-graduate study of cowboying and dayworking in Nebraska, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota....