Archive for the ‘Burros’ Category

A race on the Internet burro trail

November 15, 2009

An amusing Internet campaign has emerged for officers of the Western Pack-Burro Association as the annual banquet approaches this week. Mostly it’s amusing because in past years we’ve had to draft someone or elect some conspicuously absent person at the banquet.

“Spike” by Lorie Merfeld Batson

It’s heart-warming to see Lee and Sandi Courkamp among those on the e-mail list for this group, which has served Colorado’s only indigenous sport for more than 30 years. Lee and Sandi are the founders of the organization, which was originally called the Colorado Pack-Burro Racing Association.

In addition to serving as the leader of the association, Lee also was one of the greatest pack-burro racers of all time. He won the World Championship race in 1971 when it was held from Breckenridge to Fairplay, and on the 29-mile course in 1974 and 1982.

Lee’s winning times on the long Fairplay course were 4:14 and 4:16. He also stands out as one of the very few people to run more than two different burros in winning multiple world championships, attesting to his animal-handling/training abilities.

In the mid-90s we had a race in Arizona. To show our support for branching out to neighboring Western states, and to also attract interest from those who might be interested in other burro-related activities, it was decided to change the club’s name. After some discussion we settled on Western Pack-Burro Association.

The annual Burro Banquet will be at 6 p.m. Saturday at Zichittella’s Italian Restaurant in Leadville. Contact Shelley Hall to RSVP if you wish to attend.

Goodbye to Norton Buffalo

November 11, 2009

Largely unnoted by the mainstream media, musician Norton Buffalo crossed over on Oct. 30. Norton was a Grammy-winning harmonica player known for his performances with the Steve Miller Band, Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, and Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.

He played on two tracks of the Doobie Brothers’ Grammy-winning “Minute by Minute” and in 1992 won his own Grammy for “Song for Jessica” with guitarist Roy Rogers.

I met Norton in the early 1980s when I was getting started in pack-burro racing. Norton was a friend of Curtis Imrie and on occasion visited Buena Vista when I was there training burros.

This was a period in my life when the world seemed wide open. That’s what pack-burro racing represented to me then when I was training a jack named Moose on the roads and trails around Curtis’ place.

In addition to Norton’s actual presence, Curtis always had cassette tapes of his music in his car and home stereo. Once Curtis arranged a concert in the local bar, The Lariat, in Buenie and I got to see Norton play the harmonica in front of a rowdy crowd. His trademark harmonica riffs will always remind me of that time in my life.

There was a wild burro named Hannibal that Curtis adopted from the Bureau of Land Management. He ended up at Norton’s place out in California and was uncatchable for a long while. It was Norton who got Hannibal gentle enough to be captured and loaded, and this beast ended up here. I trained Hannibal to some in-the-money finishes in the pack-burro races. (Hannibal now lives in Cañon City.)

Youtube is loaded with video of Norton’s music. I suggest you check it out.

Sometimes you have the good fortune to meet someone, but it isn’t until after that person is gone that you wish you had taken the opportunity to learn more. For me, Norton Buffalo was one of those people. It appears he lived a short life dying of cancer at just 58, but how many people are able to do what they love to do for so many years?

Yeah, he was bucking, too

November 8, 2009

A few more words about Friday’s near disaster with Harrison and Spike . . . First off, Harrison got back on a burro the next day, riding Redbo for a short ways, about a mile total on the dirt track over to the west of here.

“Spike is bad behavior,” he said from the saddle. “Redbo is better.”

Rehashing the incident, it had been in the back of my mind that Spike was actually bucking during Friday’s rodeo episode. Everything happened so fast I wasn’t certain.

However, Spike’s bucking was confirmed by Lorie Merfeld-Batson, a neighbor and one of the moms that witnessed Spike’s blow-up at the arena. Lorie said she was amazed at how well Harrison stuck in the saddle as Spike ran away bucking.

Lorie also mentioned how surprised she was that a burro would do something like this. She said the behavior was more like something she’d expect from a horse. I would agree. Rarely do burros spin, run and buck like this, especially when there is no apparent reason for spooking. As I previously wrote, Spike’s meltdown bordered on psycho. Never say never when discussing equines.

I also was reminded that my first horseback riding experience was on a Shetland pony that ran off with me when I was about Harrison’s age. This was at my great uncle Glen’s farm in Missouri. I have a dim memory of the horse running fast across a pasture and stopping short of a fence. Somehow I stayed on. When I visited the farm as an adult shortly before Glen’s death in 1997 none of the landscape was how I remembered it but I sure remember that ride.

So now we have some new rules around here. First, Harrison won’t ride Spike anymore. Secondly, nobody will ride anything around here without some serious hardware — a bit — in its mouth. My apologies to the bitless bridle crowd — I know if I had been able to turn Spike the situation Friday never would have gotten so out of control. And a bit would have made a big difference.

Today I took Redbo out with my friends Peter Hedberg and Jeff Gillingham. I rode along with them on their horses, and did some hiking, running and thinking as well. We were out for nearly four hours. We took some of the rugged trails on Bear Basin Ranch up a rocky hill known locally as “Grouse Mountain.” It’s also called “Camelback” by some. And on the USGS topo map it’s “Bears Ears.” A rock formation that caps this mountain actually looks like the ears of a bear. The trail, one of the few that is snow-free around here, winds up the south-facing slope dotted by Gambel oak and mountain mahogony. The view from up there was stunning.

It was a fine outing, and between Harrison so readily returning to riding Saturday and this time spent outside today, I felt the weekend had indeed been salvaged.

An unexpected rodeo and a bruised psyche

November 7, 2009

It happened so fast I had no time to think, and perhaps that explains why even now I can’t really piece it all back together. Harrison was on Spike, and I had the lead rope. We were watching the 4-H kids practice their equine drills in the neighborhood arena.

Suddenly Spike spooked for no apparent reason. The next thing I knew I was sprinting down an embankment, trying to keep a grip on the rope. I found myself “climbing” the lead rope hand over hand as I ran trying to gain control of the berserk burro, who was running away with my son.

A split-second decision — I knew that I had to somehow get a grip on Harrison and pull him out of the saddle before the whole thing got away from me. I remember getting my arm around him and pulling him off the burro just as I lost my footing. Then, for what seemed like forever, I wrestled in mid-air, flying, twisting and contorting in an attempt to hit the ground first myself and break Harrison’s fall.

We landed in some shallow snow, and miraculously nobody was seriously hurt. Harrison appears completely unscathed. I have a chunk missing from a middle finger down to the meat (I think from rope burn), my lower back is really torqued, and I feel pretty beat up in general.

And then there’s the bruised psyche.

All the magic of the connection between animal and child can come undone in only a few seconds. And then the second-guessing sets in: Is this therapeutic riding thing really helpful, or is it merely my ego at work? Is this just too dangerous? Spike should be a “dead-broke” burro, but one can never fully know what goes on in the mind of an equine. What he did today bordered on psycho.

Despite today’s rodeo I’m hopeful Harrison will get back in the saddle soon.

My friend Mad Dog has lost a friend, an older gent who lived next door to him. Speaking from experience, it’s a hell of a thing when you are in middle age, or maybe a little bit on the other side of it, to lose an older friend, someone you really admire. I know because I went through that when Virgil Lawson passed on a few years ago. It takes a while to come to the full realization that this person is really gone. For a long time the notion of his death would strike me . . . I might be driving somewhere, out running or just outside working. I would feel a deep sense of loss and just think, “Damn, I can’t believe he’s gone.”

Me and my shadow — a self portrait

September 29, 2009


Goodbye to summer and two horses

September 15, 2009

Late summer has its many faces here in the Wet Mountains, from the blustery days when you first notice the edges of the aspens turning, to the clear blue days that seem to never end as summer becomes fall. But they will. Eventually the leaves will fall and usually some whopper of a snowstorm will bring it all to an end sometime around Halloween.


Last Thursday was one of those blustery days. I hauled two horses from the ranch I caretake out to Mission Wolf, where they will fulfill their final missions in the circle of life. Star was chronically lame from an old injury (shattered coffin bone) and painfully blind in one eye. Ciao, was elderly and his body was bumpy with tumors from head to tail; recent winters have been very tough on this kind old soul. It was particularly painful for me to load Ciao for this journey, but Star caused me more emotional turmoil by not loading easily.chowpastel


It’s an 80-mile round trip, much of it on bad road, from here to the wolf sanctuary. The landscape of the western flanks of the southern Wet Mountains has a much different feel, with rolling tan hills of grass and clumps of aspens. It’s backdropped by a spectacular view of the southern Sangre de Cristos, from Tijeras Peak to Mount Lindsey. With these jagged peaks shredding the dark gray clouds the scene was fittingly melancholy.


The folks at the wolf sanctuary were very gracious and helpful in unloading. As much as I favor the idea of these animals not going to waste, it was still one of the most difficult tasks I have ever undertaken. But dead is dead, and the wolves need to eat too. Before I drove away I was caught off-guard when handed a receipt made out to the ranch for a sizable charitable donation.


It was perhaps a mistake to glance back from the ridge overlooking the wolf sanctuary as I drove up the washboarded Ophir Creek Road. I could see the small figures of Star and Ciao grazing peacefully with two other horses awaiting their fates, and the scene cast a pall over the next couple days especially with the weather turning gloomy.


Saturday morning, some levity. I had received a call the previous evening from Dave over at Bear Basin Ranch, the local dude outfit. Three of their cattle have been mixed in with ours for some time. Dave had a Cowboy Weekend group coming in and needed to retrieve his three beasts for their team sorting activities.


I went over with one of my saddle donkeys, Ace, and found all the cattle — our nine head and their three — in some thick brush and timber. It wasn’t much work to get the herd moving, and Ace kept them pinned against a fence and trailed them all the way across the school section pasture to the corral.


I heard some voices off in the trees, and soon Justin, one of the Bear Basin wranglers, showed up on his horse. Pretty quickly the two of us had the three white-faced Bear Basin cattle sorted and penned in a corral. Meanwhile, the rest of the cattle meandered on up the hill.


Dave and the rest of the group showed up shortly and we devised a plan to get the three white-faced beeves on their way back to Bear Basin. All these cowboys had to do was block about 100 feet of an opening to the corral so the cattle would move out the gate and onto the road.


But it didn’t work that way.


I watched as Justin let the cattle out of the pen. Two of them started to go the way we planned, but the third decided to break away and go with the herd, resulting in a rodeo. The last thing I saw Dave and Justin were chasing the three renegades up the hill and trying to haze them back toward the corral.


As rode off on Ace I joked with one of the dudes about how one guy on a donkey could round up the whole herd, but it took eight guys on horseback to let three of them get away.


Here in the high country life does, indeed, go on.

Net-worth vs. self-worth

September 11, 2009

My column in Colorado Central magazine this month has generated some good feedback, so I’ve decided to share it with Hardscrabble Times readers. It’s about emotions stirred up by the visit of a dear friend, my high school buddy, whom I had not seen in 23 years, and whose life is quite different from mine. To read a slightly different version of the full column, click here.

The last beautiful days of August

August 23, 2009



We’ve been making a weekly habit of hiking into some great place in the Sangre de Cristos for some fishing. My son Harrison rides one of our burros.

The mountains are here. Wish you were beautiful.

We might as well take advantage of our geography, especially during these last idyllic days of summer and early fall. Today’s adventure was into the Macy Lakes drainage. I’m not terribly concerned about revealing the location because few would or could walk this far.

We stopped short of the lakes to do some stream fishing. In about an hour I caught and released about 15 cutthroat trout. None were huge but all were a thrill. They could not resist an orange ant.

Harrison’s mount today was Redbo. Harrison rides with a comfort and fluidity that I’ve rarely seen. He seems to flow with the animal up and down the gnarly, rocky trails. He was in the saddle today for a total of 4 hours and 20 minutes. I ran a stopwatch on it.

We were greeted back at the trailhead by a brief shower. Just a short drive and we were back at home.

30? Not yet

August 11, 2009


The 2009 Colorado Pack-Burro racing season concluded Sunday with Bobby Lewis of Buena Vista and his burro Wellstone winning the 22-mile Leadville Boom Days race, as well as the sport’s Triple Crown, just a few seconds ahead of myself and Laredo. Tim Van Riper caught this photo of Bobby (right) and myself at the turn-around on the Mosquito Pass summit, elevation 13,187 feet, where the wind was really whipping.

Bobby and I have had an interesting racing season due to the dynamics between Wellstone and Laredo. Laredo is Wellstone’s father. When we are out on the course, Wellstone refuses to leave Laredo on his own. But if I try to break the race open, Wellstone digs in to catch or keep pace with Laredo. Then when we near the finish line, Wellstone is willing to go slightly ahead of Laredo and Laredo refuses to pass him. And thus the three finishes just seconds apart.

Although I walked away with another frustrating second place, I extend my congratulations to Bobby, and also take satisfaction in my 30th consecutive finish at Leadville. My first race was in 1980 and I claimed the infamous “Last Ass over the Pass” award with a burro named Moose.

“30” is what we old-school journalists used to type at the end of a story to signify that it was complete, and some people have asked if I am ready to wind down my pack-burro racing career.

When I’m just a couple seconds from another win?

No. Not yet. But I might show up with a different burro.

What do you want for free?

August 8, 2009

There have been the usual complaints about nothing new at Hardscrabble Times this week. Hey, what do you expect for free? Especially during the week between the final two events of the 2009 pack-burro racing season. Last week’s race at Buena Vista turned out to be a repeat of the previous week at Fairplay, with Bobby Lewis able to get his burro Wellstone over the finish line again 2 seconds ahead of myself and Laredo. It’s a little frustrating, but then I suppose I should be happy to even be in the running at my rather advanced stage of youthfulness.

Laredo, Hal and Harrison following another second-place finish at Buena Vista. Photo by Tim Van Riper.

Laredo, Hal and Harrison following another second-place finish at Buena Vista. Photo by Tim Van Riper.

The next morning bright and early I was limping away to the Colorado Springs airport to pick up my old high-school buddy and neighbor Eric Leeper and his son Sam, who were visiting from Indiana. Eric and I lived in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Annandale, Va., and attended high school in Burke at Lake Braddock but I had not seen him in 23 years. Eric is now a noted professor of economics at Indiana University.

We spent four days more or less getting reacquainted, taking in the local scenery and bugging out Eric’s mind and eyes with my lifestyle. On Tuesday we packed Sam and my son Harrison on burros to the Swift Creek Beaver Ponds, where the fishing was quite decent though tricky with all the overgrowth. Harrison even hooked into a nice cutthroat with a little help from dad, and held the flyrod as I scrambled down the bank to release the fish.

After taking Eric and Sam back to the airport Thursday, Harrison and I spent a lovely evening dining in the backyard of my longtime friends Mad Dog O’Grady and wife Shannon. After that I returned home to find an unexpected rush editing job had fallen into my lap. What’s a guy to do in this economy but stay up past midnight and get the job done?

That left me two days to get my @#$% back together for Sunday’s big race at Leadville. For tomorrow’s race I find myself focusing not so much on No. 1 or No. 2, but rather on No. 30. If all goes well that’s the number of consecutive finishes I’ll have had at Boom Days.