Trail Riding the Big Open in Montana

America's vast public lands provide an expansive trail-riding experience - and present unique challenges, as well.
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America's vast public lands provide an expansive trail-riding experience - and present unique challenges, as well.

Feeling a little lazy and sore from trail riding the previous day, I snuggled more deeply into my sleeping bag and watched through the trailer window. Only moments ago, the stars had been brilliant, but now they faded as the buttes dotting the landscape became discernable in the coming dawn. Very soon the eastern horizon turned pink, then brilliant red, and then, celebrating the coming of another great day, a chorus of coyotes saluted the lighting of this vast stage. High treble wails were punctuated by alto "yips" in a counterpoint that might've been envied by Bach himself.

Emily Aadland heads for a pine ridge in eastern Montana aboard her horse, Scooter.

Emily Aadland heads for a pine ridge in eastern Montana aboard her horse, Scooter.

We were camped in the middle of a huge eastern Montana ranch. Although our alleged purpose was involvement in a Theodore Roosevelt-style horseback hunt for antelope (I'm working on a book about our greatest conservationist president), we'd looked forward more than anything to riding our young horses in open country under the big sky. Before trip's end, we wondered at the fact that so few trail riders take advantage of the joys offered by riding on the millions of American acres sometimes called "the Big Open."

Discover the Open Range
The western halves of the Dakotas and Nebraska and the eastern halves of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado contain much land that bucks the current tide of subdivision and urbanization. Indeed, much of the Big Open is actually less settled than it was before homesteaders attempted to make a living on it. A great deal of this land is publicly owned. The Bureau of Land Management alone tends to a staggering 264 million federal acres, most of it in the western states, and most of it available (if not always easily accessible) to its owners, the citizens of the United States.

Additionally, most of the western states historically allotted one section of land (a square mile or 640 acres) of each township (36 sections) to the local school district, and such state-owned land is often available for recreation.

Since most state and federal land in the Big Open is leased to farmers or ranchers, you must sometimes gather information and make arrangements from the agencies and individuals involved. But if you yearn to ride your horse in country with the ultimate in "elbow room," terrific adventures await you and your mount.

Anyone who looks at such vast country and says, "There's nothing there" is missing a rich smorgasbord of nature in many cases less altered by man than that found even in the designated wilderness areas of the mountains.

During our recent few days on the eastern Montana ranch, Emily and I saw herds of deer and antelope, a sky filled with literally thousands of sandhill cranes warbling their way south in vast "V" formations, badger dens, and yipping prairie dogs.

There were deserted homesteads exuding the character of an earlier time, a time of isolation and hardship, but also of rewards. At night, there wasn't a single light to dilute the brilliance of the stars. And more than anything else, there was room to ride.

Proceed with Caution
To trail riders used to tree-lined paths, the Big Open does offer some challenges. Here are several of them.

The Big Open is arid country; know the location and safety of water sources. A water-pumping windmill might indicate a working stock tank.

The Big Open is arid country; know the location and safety of water sources. A water-pumping windmill might indicate a working stock tank.

The term "trail riding" doesn't apply very well. You'll often ride where no trail exists, and any trails you do ride through western rangeland are likely to be two-track vehicle roads or paths made by cows and wildlife.

Cows are good trail builders in one respect-they have an uncanny sense of the proper grade that makes for comfortable uphill and downhill travel-but they can also go places you and your horse can't go. Unhampered by a rider, they can duck through brush that scratches their backs. Equipped with cloven hoofs that sink less readily than horses' hooves, cows can cross boggy areas that would be dangerous for riders.

Since most of the Big Open is cattle country, it's wise to desensitize your horse to cows if this hasn't already been done as part of routine training. (I consider exposure to cattle an essential part of any trail horse's education.) A fairly painless way to expose your horse to bovines is to arrange for board with a farmer or rancher who owns cattle. Sharing a pasture with cows will soon remove much of the mystery about the critters in your horse's mind.

Horses are genetically geared to open country, not to mountains and timber. A horse sandwiched between others progressing along a tree-lined trail has few options, and a green animal often does perfectly well in those situations. But the wide open spaces can mean run to young or spirited animals, so caution is in order. A good "handle" on your horse is a must.

Though rangeland is rich in wildlife, few species pose any threat to riders. Upland birds, such as sage grouse, sharptail grouse, prairie chickens, and Hungarian partridges, are common. A covey flushing under your horse's nose can cause a start. Deer and antelope usually appear at longer ranges than the deer of the woods, so your horse has more time to study them.

Free-running horses, either feral or domestic, pose a threat only if your horse has an impulse to join the galloping herd. Few ranchers run stallions on the range anymore, and you should've been warned if a stallion is running free. A sure sign that you're in a stallion's territory are large mounds of horse manure, many days of droppings all piled together. That's a stallion's way of marking his territory.

If you see a stallion with mares, take no chances. The advice of a Norwegian rancher given years ago when his free-running stallion showed up with mares, delivered in heavy accent, was simple: "Get off, trow rocks!" And that's what we did, keeping the stallion a stone's throw away until he galloped off with his mares.

And yes, there's the occasional prairie rattler, but in truth, very few people or horses are bitten by them. Caution is in order, though.

Watch the Water
Although the Big Open is arid country, it's not bereft of water. For your benefit and for that of your horse, know the location and safety of water sources. Stock ponds, created by damming a small drainage such as a coulee, are common. If cattle and wildlife drink there, I consider the water safe for my horse, but not for me.

Dan Aadland and his horse, Partner, pose in front of an old adobe homestead.

Dan Aadland and his horse, Partner, pose in front of an old adobe homestead.

Stock tanks, usually made from fiberglass or galvanized iron, are often supplied by wells. The pumping is done by the old-timer's version of alternative energy: the windmill. Some of these supply water potable for humans, assuming it's caught as it emerges from the pipe, not dipped from the tank. But find out for sure. If the information isn't available, assume the water's unsafe without purification, either by a proper filter or with tablets available at backpacking stores.

Wherever there's a water source, there may also be a bog. Be careful crossing the very bottom of any deep coulee. A well-worn cow-path whose tracks are thoroughly dry is probably safe.

And be aware of the Big Open's famous gumbo (not, unfortunately, the tasty New Orleans sort). Many rangeland soils turn into an impossible, sticky mud even after only a light rain. Gumbo laughs at four-wheel-drive, rolling up on your vehicle tires like sticky dough on a rolling pin.

Ranchers talk of getting "snowed in" during the winter and "mudded in" during the other seasons. On a recent trip, my wife, Emily, and I arrived (barely) at our campsite in a steady rain that continued for several hours. We were thus "mudded in" for our first day at the spread of corrals and buildings the rancher called his "Cow Camp."

No matter. We were enjoying ourselves, and we knew that our fast-traveling horses could get us to the main ranch buildings 10 miles north if we really had to go.

Navigate Well
A ranch the size of our host's 35,000 acres is common in the Big Open. Emphasize the word "big!" This is big country. For you the word "pasture" may connote an enclosure of 10 acres. Ranchers in range country often use the term for parcels thousands of acres in size, pastures miles across.

Land navigation in big, open country comes naturally for those used to this environment, but can pose problems for the visitor from a forested world with distinct valleys and drainages. The many hills and buttes may all look similar. Go equipped with map and compass and the ability to use them.

In addition, if you haven't yet learned the wonders of small, hand-held global positioning system (GPS) units, now is the time. With such a device and a good topographical map, you can pinpoint your location at any time. Experienced users enter a waypoint for their base camp as a matter of course. Then, at any time, your GPS can point in the direction of your camp and tell the distance to it as the crow flies.

Expect cell phone service to be spotty. Sometimes riding to the top of the nearest hill results in a useable signal should you need your phone for an emergency. Otherwise, it's nice to be without it. You're here to ride and ride and ride, not chat on a cell phone.

Also, if you're from an urban environment, you may find a sense of anxiety or unease coming over you at first exposure to the Big Open, a sense of vulnerability. You may even have a touch of what psychologists call agoraphobia. Unless you have clinical problems with this illness, the feeling of anxiety is likely to pass, particularly with the therapy furnished by, as a character in Lonesome Dove put it, "riding a good horse in new country."

Follow Ranch Etiquette
Although it's sparsely populated, there are people in the Big Open. The ranchers who survive drought, winter, and inadequate prices for their livestock are a stalwart lot. Extremely observant, they'll notice any vehicle not owned by a neighbor. They'll wave to you when your vehicle meets theirs on a county road, and they'll stop to help you if you blow a tire.

But they're proud, too, and it pays to know a thing or two about their culture and environment. A little understanding goes a long way, and it just might help gain access to some wonderful riding opportunities.

Ranchers are passionate about gate etiquette, and it's relatively simple: Leave gates as you find them. If you find them open, leave them open. If you find them closed, close them securely behind you. To do otherwise can cause the rancher hosts of difficulties. If you leave a gate open his livestock can mingle with a neighbor's, costing a day's roundup. If you close a gate the rancher deliberately left open, you might inadvertently shut livestock away from water.

It pays to understand a bit about vocabulary, as well. A pickup truck is a "pickup," never a "truck." The ranch itself is called his "place" or his "ranch" or his "land," never "the property." That's realtor language.

In an attempt to be friendly, many outsiders insult ranchers at the very beginning of their conversation by asking how many acres the rancher owns and how many cows he runs. Both are received as you might view a question about your bank-account balance.

Ride a Good Horse
As to horses, your favorite trail horse is likely to be just fine in the Big Open. Good horses of all breeds are appropriate.

A century ago, ranchers favored endurance builds, often in horses with a "single-foot" or other smooth, ground-covering gait. Today, with horse trailers to accomplish some of the distance work, ranchers incline toward Quarter Horses, but you'll notice they're often the long-legged, traveling type. Our Tennessee Walking Horse colts thrived and scooted us along so well that we marveled, later at the distance we'd covered the first day.

Many memories from our recent trip are likely to stick around: the wildlife, the deserted homesteads, the rhythmic gurgling of pure water pumped by the nearby windmill, and the satisfaction of our horses as they plunged their noses deeply into the stock tank.

There was my own satisfaction at the stellar performance of my colt, Partner, on his first long trip. And most of all, there was that last stretch toward camp at the end of our first day, Partner and Scooter cruising in their running walks at a steady 7? miles per hour (according to the GPS).

The wind was in our faces, the fences were scarce, and the mundane worries about daily life in more crowded environments were far from our minds.