The Last Roundup

Catch the tail end of a bona fide Western tradition and head to Three Forks between May 3 and 6—that should put you smack in the middle of some serious cowboy camaraderie and adrenaline, as riders trail horses thundering through town to their summer pasture during Montana Horses’ final spring roundup.

“There’s nothing more beautiful and elegant than seeing a horse gallop freely,” photographer Felix A. Marquez says, who found himself in the midst of the melee last year. “Seeing and hearing hundreds of them is amazing and impressive. Just spectacular.”

And this is the last year it will be seen around here. Having hosted the event since 1997, Kail Mantle and Renee Daniels-Mantle are pulling up stakes and moving on. Along with their horses, they’re selling their ranch. “The industry has changed,” Renee explains. “50 years ago, actors could still ride and most people had a connection with horses. Now the percentage is in single digits.”

Renee says she’d love to see a horse outfit buy the place but is confident they “absolutely would not be able to replicate the Montana Invitational Horse Stampede. This isn’t your City Slicker dude-vacation experience,” she insists. And she’s right—this is a real Old West roundup, and participants pay $3,200 to help the Mantle crew round up 400 horses from their winter pasture in the hills south of Willow Creek and trail them to summer digs at the ranch.

Although they are well-broken trail—not wild—horses, they’re still spirited, and excellent riding skills are mandatory, along with guts and physical endurance beyond the average traveler’s. “You’re riding eight hours a day for three days. You can’t train for it,” Renee says. “There’s no app for horse herding. What we’ve tried to do with this horse drive is maintain its authenticity. Each rider is necessary and actually has to run horses.”

Riders ease into the first day by rustling horses from 7,000 rugged acres into a small holding pasture, then walk, trot, and gallop in small groups. “We explain how horses move and think, and how to come in behind, not in front of them,” Kail says. “Day two is controlled chaos. We move down fenced lanes for ten miles before hitting Willow Creek. By day three, when we hit that open country past Three Forks, it’s mayhem”—there are no more fences, and the horses race along the railroad, paralleling the cottonwood forests of the Missouri River. 

This year, those not riding (slots were nearly filled as of early February) can join the reunion May 4-6. In addition to the Saturday evening dance at the Sacajawea Hotel, which has always been public, folks can sign up for festivities outside the ride. Photographers lucky enough to land one of the ten coveted expedition spots (hundreds apply each year) will be shuttled to plum photo positions along the entire three-day route, guided by Val Westover and Stephanie Adriana. The expedition theme is “Capturing True Emotion”—something of which riders, spectators, and “shooters” will experience plenty.

So heads up—if you’re not saddling up, buckle up and drive out to Three Forks for the final Montana Invitational Horse Stampede. And don’t forget to polish those boots for a heel-stompin’ cowboy dance. For more information, email [email protected].