I was on a trail ride the other day in the Santa Monica Mountains. My riders were a family of four, including, Chance, a boy of about ten, and Sherry, a girl about eight years old. The youngsters were curious about the birds that were flying overhead and asked me if the dark figures circling above were hawks.
“No.” I said, “Those are ravens.” “How can you tell?” asked Chance. I explained, “The birds are close enough to see that they are black and not red like the red-tailed hawks. Also, they are soaring. Crows can’t do that. They have to flap their wings all the time while flying. Ravens are a lot bigger than crows too, although you can’t tell it from this distance. What’s more, I happen to know that there isn’t a crow around here for miles!” We all laughed.
One can also tell by their call. Ravens have a distinct vocabulary of calls that are different from crows or red tailed hawks. An interesting fact is that in the movies and television almost all birds of prey are given the call of the red tailed hawk. The reason is the proximity of Hollywood to the Santa Monica Mountains where the recordings were originally made. The red tailed hawk call has been used so widely in motion pictures that it has become identified as the call of all birds of prey. Ravens have an interesting vocalization that is kind of a “knocking” sound. Like the sound that you can make when you “pop” your tongue off of the roof of your mouth. I have tried to replicate it in an attempt to get the attention of ravens but with little effect, they just ignore me. I guess they can spot a phony. Crows, of course, make their characteristic “Caw! Caw!” sound. Incidentally, both crows and ravens are very intelligent. They can recognise people and remember those who were good or bad to them.
I have a special relationship to a pair of ravens that live near the ranch. Sometimes I put scraps of food for them on top of a fence post where I tie my horse, India. I try to desensitize my horse to things she will see on the trail. Placing food for the ravens where she is tied attracts them. They will then swoop down and perch on the fence next to her. With this method, India has become more familiar with the large black birds because she has seen them moving swiftly around her, flying over her head, and landing next to her. The two ravens got more familiar with us as well. Sometimes I see them perched in a nearby tree watching us, probably to see if I will leave any tidbits for them to eat.
Crows and ravens have a reputation for being harbingers, variously, of good and evil. This is how the tradition goes. If there is only one bird it is a good sign, if there is a flock of birds, look out, bad things may happen. This is just superstition, or so I thought until recent events taught me otherwise. One morning late last year when I was leaving to go to the ranch I noticed a large gathering of crows, fifteen or so, perched on the telephone line directly above my house. This was an unusual occurrence, so it caught my attention. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “What could this mean?” Later that day my horse had a bad accident due to someone else’s negligence. A sharp hook holding a bucket was left on a stall near where my horse lives. Unfortunately it was out of sight and I did not know it was there; she received a severe laceration on her nose, which required surgery and about seven weeks to heal. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the crows above my house. They were trying to tell me something.
During her recovery I didn’t ride at all. So for months, through the fall and winter, her training, conditioning, and behavior suffered. She was cranky and unsteady. I found that I needed to take some time to “ride her down” in the spring and recondition her to trail riding. The problem wasn’t that she didn’t want to ride out on the trail. It was just the opposite. She was too eager to go, to the point of “volunteering” to canter and buck when we headed out. I decided that a few weeks of ground work and arena riding were needed.
I’m of the school of thought that when you’re reintroducing a horse to riding you start with the basics and build up. I proceeded this way: first with turn-outs, then ground work, then schooling by riding in an arena, riding with a group on the trail, and finally riding solo on the trail. I was in need of a little physical reconditioning too. And having spent seven long weeks monitoring India’s healing and medicating her wound twice a day, I needed to make riding fun for me again.
Finally after weeks of “remedial riding” the day had come. Everything seemed right for our first venture out on the trail alone. I was understandably apprehensive but I felt confident in the reconditioning program I had followed. I decided to ride her “cold” that day, without a warm up; just saddle her at her stall and ride out. But it wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be.
I saddled her as usual with my old western stock saddle and as I mounted and started out of the paddock area, I discovered that two old friends had decided to accompany us. The two ranch ravens joined us; they flew over our heads, past us, and perched on the paddock gate. We rode up to the gate where they remained facing us. I was surprised they did not fly away in fear. I said, “Hi you two, nice to see ya.” Then they turned and flew up the bridle path that serves as the trail head for the mountain trails. India and I followed them out on what turned out to be a peaceful trail ride.
In retrospect, the events of the past months were framed by the omens of ravens and crows. First when the crows gathered ominously the morning of the accident and second when the ravens showed us the way to the trail. In the latter instance, I felt as though we were shepherded by two harbingers of good.