Horse Sense

 Get out and ride.

"There's something about the outside of the horse that is good for the inside of a human." —Winston Churchill

Just 20 horse steps from Highway 191 West onto the Fawn Pass trail, the rumbling sound of speeding semi trucks is hushed. One mile in and I can still hear the steady hum of summer traffic. A few more miles and the swoosh of vehicles is replaced by a wash of wind in the pines. There is only the slow tromp of horse hooves, saddles squeaking, and the intermittent exchange of words among friends.

It takes a while to get used to this kind of quiet. But as I sink into the steady rhythm of the ride I begin to feel the pace of my hurried life slow. On this five-day pack trip into the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, our group-eight guests, four guides, 12 horses and eight pack mules led by Diamond K Outfitters-will traverse 28 miles of wilderness. Retracing the footsteps of Native Americans and mountain men who marked these trails two centuries ago, we will ride, camp, fish, hike, and feast. We will see moose, grizzly, wolves, and the view from 10,000-foot Electric Pass.

This is where a horse can take you. On horseback, people have the rare opportunity to connect with an animal, with nature, history, and a forgotten simplicity. Bozeman and the surrounding area offer equestrian services and facilities for horse lovers of every level. Here are some of our top picks.

Jake's Horses, Big Sky
Jake Grimm has offered trail rides and pack trips in the area since 1976. He and his crew can share a couple of secret fishing spots in Yellowstone National Park or guide you to the best elk hunting terrain in the Madison Range. With vast trails winding through the peaceful forests of Gallatin Canyon, it's easy to escape the crowds here.

This is a convenient location for a day trip or short trail ride if you are in the Big Sky area. Reservations are recommended, but Jake's corrals and tack room are located three miles south of Big sky on Hwy 191, Doe Creek Road. A one-hour ride is $27 per person and an all-day ride is $128 per person. Bring your own beverages and food. Custom pack trips start at $200 per day for three days with a minimum of four people.

Diamond K Outfitters, Big Sky and Paradise Valley
Fourth-generation Montana boys Dick and Chuck Kendall are renaissance cowboys with a passion for horses and wilderness. With two locations, at the Rainbow Ranch Lodge (five miles south of Big Sky on Hwy. 191) and at Chico Hot Springs Resort (25 miles south of Livingston off Hwy. 89 south), Diamond K is accessible for trail rides, fishing trips and custom pack trips into Yellowstone National Park.

For trail rides you can take in the beauty of Big Sky's Gallatin Canyon or test your line on a stream in Yellowstone's pristine country. In Paradise Valley, travel along the trail of early miners and picnic near a waterfall at the base of Emigrant Peak. For more extensive excursions, the Kendalls customize pack trips for a variety of interests, from serious horseback riding to wildlife watching to fly-fishing. A one-hour trail ride is $27 per person; other prices vary based on individual needs.

Montana Horses, Three Forks
Montana Horses has become synonymous with dude horses for commercial operations, but it is also a great resource for newbie equestrians who are not ready to buy their own horses and fair weather horse lovers who ride for part of the year. Owners Kail and Renee Mantle lease several hundred horses throughout the year for short fishing trips, cattle drives, camping trips, events, and vacations.

Experience and a love of ranching in Montana make the Mantles good at their business; the family has operated a professional horse leasing outfit for 30 years. With over 1,000 head and two locations (Three Forks, MT and Pavillion, WY), they make it easy to equip you with a fine horse and the appropriate equipment. They welcome clients to their leasing station (about 45 minutes from Bozeman) to choose horses and will deliver them to your ranch, trailhead, or favorite hunting area.

Affordability and convenience make leasing a horse a great alternative to the expense of owning and caring for your own animal. Leasing a horse for four days or less begins at $170, not including equipment and other incidentals such as delivery. Prices vary seasonally and if you're planning a trip during peak months (July, August, and September) make arrangements six months in advance to guarantee horses. Reservations are essential, regardless of the time of year.

Gallatin River Ranch Equestrian Center, Manhattan
The Gallatin River Ranch has a little bit of everything for horse enthusiasts. There are trail rides and wagon rides, breakfast and dinner rides, full-moon rides, leasing and boarding options, and an incredible indoor/outdoor riding arena. The center is open year-round, offering lessons, education clinics, and boarding. A short drive from Bozeman, Gallatin River Ranch offers numerous amenities and the opportunity to ride on 5,000 acres of private property bordering the Gallatin River.

The staff here works with a lot of first-time horse owners and so they emphasize a positive, friendly approach to the sport. Call for reservations 24 hours in advance.

Medicine Hat Ranch, Paradise Valley
About a 45-minute drive from Bozeman, Medicine Hat Ranch is in the breathtaking Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone National Park and 17 miles south of Livingston. Drive south from the I-90 and Highway 89 South intersection to mile marker #36, across from Mill Creek Road. Owner Melody Hake arranges scenic trail rides on the nearby historic Story Ranch, where the views of Gallatin Range and the Beartooth-Absaroka Mountains is stunning. The ranch is steeped in Western legend, because the late Malcolm Story brought the first herd of cattle to Montana in the 1800s.

The Medicine Hat Ranch is the equestrian center for this area, offering horse boarding and leasing, training, an apprentice program, lessons for all levels, and consulting. The 60’-by-80’ indoor arena is open year-round to the public, in addition to the 100’-by-200’ outdoor arena.

After working with horses for 20 years, Hake has cultivated a holistic approach to both horse training and riding lessons. She truly tries to match a horse and rider, not just for ability, but also for personality. Hake enjoys working with several nonprofit groups, sharing her passion for horses. She approaches each horse with a genuine respect and passes that respect on to other horse lovers.

Trail rides begin at $25 per person for a two-hour ride. Individual lessons are $25 per hour and group rates are available.

BarWalt Ranch, Belgrade
Located just a few miles outside of Belgrade and within 15 miles of Bozeman, the BarWalt Ranch is a perfect outlet for the professional or recreational rider. Offering 240 acres of equestrian trails with views of the Bridger Mountains and the rolling farmland of Gallatin Valley, the BarWalt is open to the public.

Four years ago, owner Barbara Pytlewski fell in love with the location and wanted to make it accessible to anyone with a love for riding. As a result, BarWalt welcomes horses and riders of varying breeds and disciplines, from Western pleasure to dressage. The facilities here are top-of-the-line, with a 150’-by-150’ indoor riding arena as well as an outdoor arena, 17 heated indoor stalls for boarding, three tack rooms, and extensive pasture boarding.

This is a full-service facility, with a 24-hour on-site barn manager and a full-time trainer. The focus here is on horse boarders, but all levels of riding lessons are available. Horse leasing options, clinics, horse shows, and an unparalleled children's program during summer months are also offered. The area's only eventing course will be open here in July.