As a nurse, my mom used to see a lot of busted-up stuff in the line of duty, and she came to cultivate a profound distrust of horses and motorcycles. Motorcycles, she reasoned, have no choice but to obey even the dumbest of instructions. Horses, on the other hand, are complex and highly evolved creatures, capable of choice if not always the most watertight logic. Sentient beings that they are, though, they occasionally get spooked, rush into decisions, buck their riders, roll over on them or drag them across prairies studded with prickly pear. We’ve all been to the movies.
I opted not to tell my mom beforehand about my date with the ostrich. In this rough taxonomy of leisure vehicles, you see, ostriches are more like horses in that no warranty on parts or performance is expressed or implied, and more like motorcycles in that the average motorcycle is Albert goddamned Einstein compared to the average ostrich. The ostrich’s central nervous system is a simple system of tin cans and baling twine with enough glial lubrication to execute four or five basic orders: run, eat, kick, poop, lay the occasional egg. Mom would have had spasms of worry.
They are very tall: up to eight or nine feet when stretched out. They are also big (adult males can weigh up to 450 pounds) and very fast: Ostriches have been clocked at speeds of 60 miles per hour. Contrary to popular belief, they do not bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger. They don’t have to. Ostriches can turn quite vicious when threatened, and the single black claw on each of their seven-inch toes (one per foot) would slit you up a treat before you could cry uncle. Adults can kick twice, forward, before you even know what hit you.
We skirt the fence that runs alongside the horse track at the fairgrounds seven or eight ostriches of the BC and Black Feather Ranches are milling around a holding pen while we wait for the races to begin. The Montana Ostrich Racing Team is running four heats today in half-hour intervals between a miniature horse show, kids’ stick-pony finals and the “Mutton Busters”—li’l cowpokes riding sheep. The BC Ranch’s Bob Lockman has told me that I can maybe ride one of his ostriches if I come to the Spring Fun Fair.
I ask an ostrich wrangler of the Black Feather Ranch if the birds have ever hurt anyone.
“They’ve killed people,” he says gravely, nodding towards his charges, necks swaying, black reptilian eyes blinking with quiet menace. “Mostly stupid people, but they have killed people.” Thankfully, he just means ostriches in general—not his ostriches or those of the BC Ranch.
The Flathead-area ranchers raise ostriches for their tough leather and lean, almost beef-like meat. Spurred by the success of ostrich racing in Arizona, they first got together and started racing their birds two years ago as something fun to do before slaughtering them. Most of the team’s ostrich jockeys work with horses for a living and dress the part; there’s a dollop of the surreal in seeing a trio of Wrangler-clad cowboys riding eight-foot birds down a dirt track.
If the team ever got started as something of a lark, you’d never know it now—it’s a pretty slick operation. Wranglers yoke their ostriches with a tool resembling a large bubble wand, a plastic ring with a long handle that slaps a square canvas bag over each bird’s head. As with parakeets or falcons, darkness immediately makes the ostriches more tractable. With the first heat just minutes from starting, rider Kyle Schoeph and his brothers-in-law Jeff and Boots Dillon help manhandle the first three birds into the starting area, where they are fitted with saddles and squeezed into the starting gate. Schoeph and the Dillons climb on, riding legs-up low on the bird and gripping the blue nylon strap sewn into each saddle. The starters simultaneously remove the canvas bag and open the gates, and the birds are off like scalded dogs.
“First he’ll try to run out from under you,” one of the Dillons tells me after the heat. “And when that doesn’t work, he’ll take a big ol’ sidestep to try and shake you off. You make it past that and you’re pretty much set.”
Almost everyone gets dumped at least once. Barring a legitimate mounted finish, the first man to cross the finish line holding onto his mount—or anywhere near it, really—is declared the winner.
“Are you ready?” Bob Lockman outfits me with a race number and has me sign a couple of forms. Here come the nerves. My stomach turns over once, evenly, and I wonder if I might not get a refund on the corn dog I shoveled in between heats. As from a great distance, I see myself getting on my mount, Marvin. The bag comes off and the gate clanks open.
I came in third out of three, but that is not the point. In my dreams, I am still riding to Valhalla on the back of this great snorting bird.