Photos by Emily Esterson and Nancy Ambrosiano
Red rocks. Blue skies. Sandy footing. Ancient, mystical history. Unmatched company. As I begin to write my account of the Caza Ladron Hunt Club’s 2nd Annual Canyon de Chelly trail ride and hunt, I find it difficult to describe the beauty of the environment, the easy going companionship, and the phenomenal riding. Here’s my attempt at a report:
Foxhunters are lucky to ride in places others only dream about—whether the forests and fields of the East and Midwest or red canyons of the Southwest. For this weekend, we had the opportunity to trot into the heart of one of the world’s most stunning landscapes.
Canyon de Chelly is a deep fissure inside the Navajo Nation just outside the town of Chinle, Ariz. Tucked into the folds of the canyon walls are ruins of ancient native settlements, dating back to 490 AD; petroglyphs (rock wall paintings) of kokopellis, hand prints, coyotes and birds decorate the canyon walls. Seventy native families still actively farm and live in the canyon, and many more make a living off the tourist trade. The National Park Service and the Navajo Nation manage the resources and the canyon community in partnership.
This year’s ride started on Saturday morning, Oct. 14, as 31 riders (about a half a dozen on rented Navajo ponies—a foxhunter’s dream, more on this later) and six Navajo guides started out the morning at the mouth of the canyon. The ride followed the wide sandy floor, bordered by towering red cliffs and trees turned burnt orange and blazing yellow with autumn. Riders came from Grand Canyon Hounds in Flagstaff, Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, Arapahoe in Colorado and Caza Ladron in New Mexico.
Organized by Caza Ladron Masters Richard Patton and Brian Gonzales, the trip is a relatively complicated logistical exercise. The masters made at least two trips to the area (a five hour drive from Santa Fe, NM) to scope out facilities, organize the hotel rooms, ride Sunday’s fixture, negotiate with local service providers for horses for those not bringing mounts, for guides for the trail ride, even a guide to call in the coyotes on Sunday for the hunt.
Our Navajo contact, Levi, worked tirelessly to make the experience superior for all. And yet, there are both subtle and extreme cultural differences that come into play when organizing events in Navajo land.
During this journey, we experienced the Navajos’ less exacting sense of time and commitment (does “ride off at 9:00” really mean 10:00?), a strict alcohol prohibition (because a very bad alcohol problem, the Navajo Nation is completely dry; like errant teenagers, we snuck sips in our hotel rooms and trailer tack rooms) and a decidedly less fussy attitude toward animal care (some would say that’s an understatement, as cows grazed in front of convenience stores, “res dogs” lurked outside the hotel lobby and we wondered whether the Navajo guides were going to actually water their horses as we all hauled buckets to ours).
As we headed into the canyon, the horses settled down and our Navajo companions narrated the history of the ruins along the way. We forded a couple of shallow creeks and ended up in a grove of cottonwoods for lunch—mutton stew, Navajo fry bread, potato salad, mutton chops. There is nothing like a huge piece of fried dough and honey after a long ride.
We ate, napped beneath 1,000-foot sandstone cliff walls and headed for home, with about half of the group taking a detour down a side canyon for a quick gallop (see attached map). Twenty-three miles. Unbelievable memories.
Sunday dawned equally perfect—not a single cloud to be seen. We loaded up and trailered about five miles south of Chinle to an area that greatly resembles Grand Canyon Hunt’s Winslow fixture—our Grand Canyon participants felt right at home.
Several members of the group had the good fortune to ride Navajo ponies for the weekend—small of stature and not about to win any equine beauty contests or conformation ribbons, these sturdy mounts were about as sure-footed as you get, and speedy, too. Characterized by large Roman noses, small bodies and, at first glance, weak hindquarters, these horses were steady-as-they-come and much, much stronger than they looked. Two members rode in first field and kept up handily with the hunt’s plethora of Holsteiners, Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. Scrawny, yes, but by day’s end we were considering whether we might bring two or three of these mighty midgets home.
To be honest, it was not a great scenting day. With record temperatures in the high seventies and dry conditions, the subset of Caza Ladron hounds (six and a half couple) made a valiant try at finding scent—even caught a whiff here and there–but it was not to be. Hilltoppers, led by Rob Kornacki of Fort Leavenworth and including youngsters Andres Gonzales (8) and Sophia Joseph (9), viewed Wile E. Coyote far in the distance, heading away from first and second fields. Nonetheless, the country was stunning, the company delightful, and the riding unmatched.
Plans are already in the works for next year’s trip, as it becomes an annual tradition for Caza Ladron and neighboring hunts.