I graduated college with an English degree and no job prospects. This didn’t discourage me so much as give me an excuse to get out of New Hampshire, so I applied for summer work as a horseback guide in Yellowstone National Park.
My horse experience might have landed me a job at rustic Roosevelt Corrals, but all of my experience was in English riding.
I wore tall boots and tights to ride, not jeans and a cowboy hat. I jumped fences and practiced dressage: riding was for performance, not function. But the Wild West held an allure that I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in, and I figured I would pick up the skills quickly.
Despite my high hopes, everything about my arrival was wrong. My chirpy, East Coast persona had no place at Roosevelt Corrals. My cowboy hat was the wrong style, my boots were for fashion, not work, and I could barely lift one of the heavy western saddles onto my assigned wrangler horse.
Most of the other wranglers in their 20s like me, but they had grown up on expansive ranches in Wyoming and Montana, not in a homogenized suburb. While they were cutting the testicles off calves, I was playing with model horses. While they were galloping after steers, I was wearing a bobble-head helmet, being led around an arena on a fat pony as my parents videotaped from the bleachers.
Without delay, my co-workers let me know that I was not welcome on their turf.
We had less than two weeks to prepare the corrals for opening day, and for the first time in my life, I realized I wouldn’t be able to charm my way into my co-worker’s hearts.
When my saddle rolled because I tied my cinch knot incorrectly, no one thought it was cute or funny. When I lost my place in the saddle chute because I took too long to halter the horses, no one came to my rescue. It wasn’t cool to talk to me, and I spent the training period keeping my head down and trying not to make a fool of myself.
On opening morning, I was heading into the wrangler barn when Carly, a tough, wiry ranch girl bumped into me as she walked out.
“Throw hay with me and Derrick?” she asked, smirking. I gulped. I had never tried to throw hay before.
Carly saddled her horse with speed and fluidity I couldn’t help but envy, then vaulted onto the back of the hay truck as it trundled past. I climbed awkwardly onto the flatbed, trying to keep my balance as it bumped into the draft horse pen.
Carly and Derrick each grabbed an 80-pound bale by the twine, bucking the massive blocks onto their knees and launching them into the trough as easily as someone throwing a basketball.
I grabbed hold of the strings and tugged, but the bale didn’t move. I pulled with both hands, my face burning and the twine cutting into my fingers. Humiliated, I dragged the bale to the edge of the truck and pushed.
The bale tipped off, but I didn’t pull my hand away in time and my fingers caught under the twine, pitching me off the side of the truck with the hay. The driver didn’t notice, and continued his slow navigation of the pen. Carly guffawed, leveling a stare at me as she tossed a bale into the next trough.
“Why don’t you just stay down there and cut the twine?”
Derrick looked away, embarrassed for me, but didn’t say anything. I ducked my head and followed behind the truck, sawing through the twine with the horse-engraved pocketknife I had bought at the Roosevelt gift shop.
As the season got into full swing, I did what I could to pay penance for my ineptitude. I might have been too weak to throw hay and too intimidated to drive the draft horses, but I regularly delivered the miserably long safety speech, and I knew the horses’ personalities and could match them with the right tourist.
Above all, no one could deny I knew how to ride. I navigated the guided rides with ease, fixing stirrups and cinches on the fly, ponying stubborn horses, and chasing rouge bison away from the lines. I became fast in the saddle chute, and my East Coast chattiness didn’t go to waste—I was good with the guests, and my rides brought in hefty tips.
Still, it wasn’t enough. Groups closed in on themselves as I walked up, and thinly veiled jabs left me close to tears by the end of each day. I had never been so thoroughly disliked, and I didn’t know what I was doing to deserve it.
I tacked a piece of paper to my cabin wall and wrote out the number of days left in the season, crossing off one per night. Every morning I would stare at my stupid nametag and think, “This is the day I quit. This isn’t worth it. I don’t need to deal with this.”
But if I quit, I would have to drive away knowing that adult bullies had laughed me out of my job. So instead of packing my belongings, I would button up my work shirt, carry my embarrassing hat down the dirt path, and start another day.
I had been struggling through this miserable routine for more than a month when I mindlessly went to untie a horse for my final ride of the day. Sandy was a good kids’ horse, but nervous when tied to the rail.
As I reached for the slipknot, something startled him and he reared, frantically pulling back with all of his 800-pound bulk. Every ounce of tension between the rope and the horse seized against the railing, my left hand caught in between.
A shriek caught in my throat as my vision blurred and I gaped in horror at my pinned hand. I grabbed at my wrist and pulled as hard as I could, ripping the trapped hand out and leaving my skin stuck to the wood.
Sarah, one of the wranglers on my ride, noticed Sandy still pulling back, and she jogged over to get him under control. As she came around, she saw me lying on the ground with my shredded hand pressed between my legs, blood seeping onto my jeans.
“Holy shit Maggie,” she gasped, grabbing me under the arms and helping me to the office.
Jaime, the corral manager, blanched at the sight. The skin on my left hand had been sloughed off, halfway from knuckles to wrist. The crushed area was a skinless mottle of grey and white, and the rest was oozing blood. Jaime wrapped and taped my hand as I heaved my lunch into the trashcan.
“Do you want me to call Mammoth clinic?” she asked, referring to Yellowstone’s nearest medical services. I wiped my mouth with my free hand and cradled the bandaged one.
“No, I’m good. I can lead my ride.” This came out less heroic than whimpering, but it worked. Jaime looked at me and shrugged.
“Don’t let anyone die,” she said, and Sarah helped me out to bridle my horse.
I saw Derrick carrying his saddle, prepared to lead the ride for me. Sarah waved her hand at him, “Hey, don’t worry about it. Maggie’s going to ride.” Sarah jumped on her horse and gave the final safety speech as I wobbled into my place at the front of the line.
I was vaguely aware of kicking my horse into gear, holding my limp hand to my chest. My horse picked up the trail at the edge of the field, as he had done hundreds of times. I wasn’t a particularly engaging tour guide, but I trusted Sarah to keep an eye on the riders as I sat limply in the saddle and let my horse pick his way along the one-hour trail.
As the ride wound its way back to the corral, I pulled my horse to a shaky stop,
“Sorry,” I mumbled at Derrick, awkwardly sliding down and stumbling to keep my balance. “Can you unload my ride? I don’t feel good.”
“No, it’s cool, I got it. I can’t believe you took that damn ride out after your hand was crushed.” I nodded and walked haltingly to the bathroom, where I sat on the floor and sobbed, cradling my wrecked hand.
Instead of going to the clinic, I took a stockpile of gauze to my cabin where I rewrapped my hand every morning so the guests couldn’t see it. Thus, I began to earn a grudging respect from my co-workers.
Billie, the assistant manager, even gave me after-hours stagecoach-driving lessons. Freed from my previous anxieties, I took to it smoothly, and wagon tours became one of my favorite parts of the job. One by one, the other wranglers started chatting and joking with me, and I ceased to be a social pariah.
My hand didn’t really heal that summer. The bloody mess turned into a hideous scab, which I wore with a certain amount of pride. While I was lucky to not break any bones, I never regained all of the feeling in that hand. I also never completely stopped feeling inferior.
When I made a mistake, I would cringe and wait for the humiliation to land. It had ceased though, and as I gained confidence, I also learned how to adjust to being myself in a new environment.
While I did end up earning respect, it shouldn’t have had to be through a hideous work injury. I wish I had had the guts to ignore the corral bullies. But sometimes lessons have to be learned the hard way, and after letting my co-workers take away every shred of my self-esteem, I never let anyone push me around like that again—at the corral or any other job.
The next summer, I reapplied to Roosevelt and was rehired… as Lead Wrangler. And I was really nice to everyone.