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I became a fool for horses rather late in life. In my early 30s I got a job as a counselor in a horseback program for juvenile delinquents. Except for a few pony rides as a kid — one at a circus and another offered by a classmate who had a crush on me — I had no experience with horses and learned along with my charges. The majority of the teenage girls with whom I worked were African-Americans, and the program honored the Buffalo Soldiers. (The Buffalo Soldiers — ninth and tenth Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments — were the first all-black units the U.S. military established and instrumental in campaigns against the Comanches and Apaches.) Together, we went through all the original drills, countless injuries and embarrassments, and about once a month, to a reenactment. Our battlefields were eastern, and the McClellan saddles and tack English-inspired, but our horses had been bred on desert and prairie soils: hardy Texas and Arizona ponies, some of them bearing white freeze brands on their necks that marked them as mustangs captured and auctioned off by the Bureau of Land Management.

My stint at this program still is the only time I ever set foot east of the Rockies. Our camp simmered in subtropical humidity near Florida’s Yeehaw Junction, a wretched crossroads 30 miles north of Lake Okeechobee. It was primitive: wall tents with cots for the kids, a mess tent, fenced pasture, and unfurnished trailers for staff, everything plunked into a clearing hacked from saw palmetto thickets — the unwanted rounded up in an unwanted place. More… “Here’s to the Horses”

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. Now living in Fairbanks, Alaska and working as a wilderness guide in the Arctic, he has not been back on a horse since the events here described.
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