"Whoa now, stop that!" Sis Bruner is hollering at her horses. Her silver ponytail sways against her curved shoulders as she loads horses into the trailer for the next ride. "Back up girl, come on, Peach."
An Orick native and the daughter of a dairy farmer, Bruner grew up out by the little red schoolhouse just south of town. She's been riding since she was 3. "Years ago," she recalls, "every kid in Orick had a horse. My dad wouldn't buy me one because you can't milk 'em. So I started riding his cows."
Eventually her dad capitulated, and at 7 years old, Bruner rode in Orick's first rodeo. She spent her youth as a trick rider — think hippodrome stands, tail vaults and barrel riding. When she was 17, her house burned down with her trick saddle in it. After that, Bruner stopped doing trick shows, but she kept on riding. She was the first woman ever to run the Wild Horse Race at the Orick Rodeo back in 1981. She squints at me. "Was knocked out and went to the hospital."
"I'm hard on myself I guess," she says with a gravelly laugh. Now 65, Bruner recently endured a hip replacement, and she's survived two bouts of cancer. "How do you get over cancer? How do you get over anything? You either heal up or you don't."
Over the years, Bruner worked in construction, bartended and pulled green chain — sorting freshly cut wood — at the Cal Pacific lumber mill, but her heart has always been with her horses. You can tell. The owner of Redwood Trails Horse Rides, she's been giving horseback tours along the 44 miles of trails in Redwood National Forest for over two decades.
The hour-and-a-half ride is Bruner's favorite, because it leads up to Goose Pen Tree, where there is a ghost. Honest — Bruner pulls a notebook from her pickup truck and shows me photos of horses with inexplicably translucent legs, and pictures with curious white blobs leaping across them. She's pretty sure the ghost in the tree is her old dog. "He come out over a lady's head once," she says.
People from all over the world have taken rides with her, the oldest at 101. Age 6 is the cutoff point for young riders and, for the horses' sake, there is a 230-pound weight limit. This summer she's taking groups of two to five on hour-long to half-day rides through the redwoods.
For locals, a ride in Redwood National Park is a great reminder of why we live here. For visitors, it's a unique way to immerse yourself in the wilds of Humboldt County. Hearing Bruner's stories is the icing on the horseback-tour cake. She possesses the grit and stamina of a character from years gone by, and she's a fine storyteller. "I could tell you stuff you wouldn't want to hear," she says, smiling and kicking at the ground.
Bruner admits she's slowed down, but doesn't plan on stopping any time soon. "I get to ride a horse every day. How could I ask for anything more?"
Photos by Amy Barnes