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Time traveling, on horseback

A guided ride amid juniper and cactus cuts into remote turf above Taos Pueblo and a place called Sacred Mountain.

October 18, 2005|Shermakaye Bass | Special to The Times

I GLANCE AT FLOYD Gomez, then down at the scrubby arroyos below. Inexplicably, I feel a thousand years old. Floyd, in profile with his black hair braided, sitting motionless on a red-blond mare, could be a thousand years old. The bark of dogs and a horse's call rise on the breeze above Taos Pueblo, echoing in gently sloped juniper canyons, floating across imagined centuries.

Everything around us feels ancient, even the air.

"Our people, the Tuatah, have been settled here for more than a thousand years," Floyd tells me and my riding buddy, as we pause to admire the landscape. "The pueblo has remains of structures that are at least that old." He's talking about the northern New Mexico reservation, now a mile or so below, where residents ready for mealtime, cooling down their horses or calling in livestock, aware of the dusk settling around Sacred Mountain.

An artist and master rider, Floyd is guiding us on a two-hour "spirit ride." Cutting across restricted plains and ridges inside the reservation, the $125 sojourn takes mid-level to advanced riders into remote foothills below Taos' ski valley, into rough country reverberating with Tuatah history.

Before leaving the corral, Floyd and his father, Cesario "Stormstar" Gomez, had asked about our riding skills and paired us with suitable mounts -- me with an eager American saddle-bred quarter horse named Pocket, my friend Leigh Ann Williams on a feisty crossbreed named Nibbles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 25, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Horseback rider -- A photo caption in the Oct. 18 Outdoors section with an article about horseback riding incorrectly identified a rider as Leigh Ann Williams and credited Shermakaye Bass as the photographer. Bass was pictured; Williams took the photograph.

We are saddled and ready when Stormstar offers his only bit of advice. "This isn't cowboys and Indians," he says. "Watch out for rattlesnakes. Watch out for bears. Watch out for cactus. And no falling down allowed."

His mention of bears and rattlers collides with my projections -- I'm already far up the hills in my mind, sweeping carefree along on my horse. Brought back to the moment, I glance at Leigh Ann, wide-eyed.

Then Stormstar smiles. No worries, he assures us, this is easy for people who know how to ride. But the handsome Tuatah has made his point: Nature is real, the dangers are there, and no romanticized visions of protective native spirits dancing in your head will diminish the realities. Respect the land, and don't get cocky.

We steer onto the gravel road outside the ranch, where Floyd calls, "You all ready to go?" and, without waiting for an answer, urges his horse into a fast trot. Our horses fall in behind. A few minutes later, cutting quick and tight through tall scrub brush, we segue into a rocking-chair lope, following Floyd onto uplifts of land, dipping just as quickly, barely slowing, into arroyos and ravines, then back up again.

Before we know it, we've reached 8,500 feet or so -- as high as we'll go this evening. Pausing to catch our breath, we sit atop a vista overlooking Taos Valley, a slit of the Rio Grande Gorge faint in the western distance. The green and tawny peak known by natives as Sacred Mountain is just to the north, a lower shoulder of Taos Mountain, where swarms of skiers, hikers and mountain bikers converge year-round, the antithesis of the Tuatah's secluded aerie.

"You can only come here, to these parts of the reservation, if you are with a tribal member," Floyd says after a moment of stillness. "And no one but initiated tribal members can go up to Blue Lake." He explains that the revered body of water, several miles away, is an ancient retreat where religious ceremonies are held. The pueblo reclaimed it in a benchmark legal battle against the U.S. Forest Service in 1970.

Floyd talks about life on the reservation: His father has operated the Taos Indian Horse Ranch for 30-odd years and he did a stint as a police officer on the reservation. Now, like many of his ancestors, Floyd lives among horses, competing in endurance riding when possible and helping his father guide visitors. He tells us that the family owns a herd of 50 or more horses, some of them a not-so-common hybrid known as a Fargo, part draft horse, part American saddle-bred, part American quarter horse.

Having spent several days of rugged hard riding through the Gila Wilderness in western New Mexico, I realize this is a challenging yet oddly relaxing ride. It's rare to start a guided trip with such abandon, cutting out through fields of cactus and stone and juniper at a fast trot, then quickening into a canter to surmount pinon-cloaked hillsides.

On the descent, we continue the pace -- only steeper and faster -- and I begin to merge with horse, land and wind, watching the pueblo come into view, the evening lights glimmering in the dusk.

Suddenly I recall Stormstar's earlier warning about cactus, bears and snakes. Briefly I tense, and Pocket feels the shift. For the next few moments, I ride mindfully, on the lookout but also confident that Floyd will handle any potential nature-versus-man clash.

"We saw a bear the other day," he says, "and there are always rattlers." He flashes me and Leigh Ann a smile, then flicks his reins. "Ready?" he calls back once more, already quickening the pace.

By the time we reach the low hills just above the pueblo, Leigh Ann and I are panting, and our horses' flanks shine with sweat. I know I will be sore after this, but then our party leans forward into a last series of exhilarating shifts, from lope to trot to walk to trot and lope, and I feel ancient again. Floyd's braids fly beneath his blue bandana, tails toss and hoofs pound, the sounds of dogs barking get closer.

I savor this last view of the valley, deepening in shadows as the evening comes on. I swear that for a second the land inhales and hums, then, exhaling, sends me back down, back toward home.


You can reach Taos Indian Horse Ranch at (505) 758-3212.

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