In some parts of the old west, horse culture still reigns- and there’s no place where that’s more true than Washington State’s Methow Valley, on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Traditions and skills that were once required by every Forest Service employee are today kept alive by people like Amber Deming, Lead Wilderness Ranger for the Methow Valley Ranger District and organizer of the inter-agency Horsemanship and Packing training the forest hosted in June.
For people like Deming, horses and mules are more than just animals or a recreational activity, they’re friends and companions that carry a lifeline of food, supplies and all of the tools needed to survive an eight day patrol in the rugged and roadless Pasayten Wilderness.
Created by the same legislation that created North Cascades National Park, the 531,000 acre Pasayten Wilderness is home to hundreds of miles of trail, and because it straddles an international border of more than 50 miles with Canada it has some very unique and challenging management needs.
For USDA Forest Service, U.S. Border Patrol and National Park Service employees at North Cascades, the annual Horsemanship and Packing Training outside of Winthrop, Washington is a much needed chance to get reacquainted, both with each other and their animals, before the start of the busy summer season.
Born from a chance encounter between Deming and Morgan Seemann and Josh Bocook of the U.S. Border Patrol, the training combines decades of practical and hands-on experience to provide both new and returning riders a solid background in good horsemanship.
“Even though our agencies have different missions, a lot of what we do is the same,” Amber said, “and the training gives us a chance to get together and learn, both about each other and our horses.
Starting with horse and rider safety, students learn about the different parts of a horse and types of personalities and ways in which they might behave.
They learn how horses see, about the two blindspots that every horse has (directly behind them and directly between their eyes) and how having an eye on each side can help them see almost completely around their bodies as they look out for predators.
Students then take that knowledge out to the arena, where for the first time they learn to approach and catch their animals before proceeding to halter, lead and tie stock with various quick release knots and hitches.
Before riding, the animals are thoroughly brushed and inspected, and extra care is given to remove any burrs or sharp objects that might aggravate when stuck under a saddle.
To provide cushioning for both rider and horse a saddle blanket is placed on the withers, or ridge between the shoulder blades, where it is then slid backwards to rest comfortably in the middle of the back.
Then it’s time to saddle up; the latigo, or cinch strap, goes underneath the horse and once tightened helps keep the saddle snug and in place. The rear cinch strap gets buckled in the same manner, and last but not least the breast collar is attached.
Before hopping into the saddle, each rider learns to inspect everything diligently – making sure the saddle is comfortably attached, for themselves and their horse. The latigo is tightened one last time. When the saddle is secure the horse is ready to be ridden.
To mount up a rider approaches on the horse’s left side and, holding the reins in their left hand grabs the horn of the saddle. The right hand holds onto the cantle, or back of the saddle, and the left foot is placed in the stirrup.
The rider then stands up straight and, once balanced and standing in the stirrup, finishes the maneuver by swinging their right leg up and over and into the other stirrup.
But before a student can mount a horse they have to learn their ground work. Taking the time to determine the horse’s attitude before a trip, the rider goes through a number of different motions and exercises to make sure the horse is ready before ever hopping in the saddle.
For beginning riders time is spent on learning how to gain forward momentum, how to turn, circle and stop. Riders learn how to hustle by driving forward with their hips and through rhythmic kicking, and they learn how to maneuver by safely taking their animals through a cleverly designed obstacle course.
After learning how to ride, students spend time learning how to pack for their horses and mules. Perfect for use in the non-motorized Wilderness, a typical pack string can carry up to four times the weight a helicopter can carry, with each animal carrying an average of 200 pounds.
In addition to hauling food, heavy tools and supplies, a Forest Service pack team can be essential for a successful search and rescue.
“As an example, one time, when the sheriff’s office contacted us about helping with a search and rescue, one of our outfitter guides had a Girl Scout camped in up at Robinson Creek who sprained her ankle really bad,” said Deming. “They asked us to go in with a horse and go get her and ride her out.”
To get some search-and-rescue practice, students conduct and exercise where they work together as a team to sweep a meadow for a hidden backpack. Then, after successfully finding it, students finish out the class by learning how to get their animals ready for transport.
A stock truck or horse trailer can be used, depending on the route and destination, but hauling a live load always requires extra caution. With each horse easily weighing up to 1,000 pounds or more, students are taught to watch for special signage, to drive slower than usual and to watch out when going through a curve or driving over bridges.
Without regular training to introduce new generations of riders, the skills required to maintain supplies to the backcountry using horse and mule pack trains would likely be lost. The continued use of horse pack trains on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is made possible, in part, through partnerships with Mt. Adams Institute and the Washington Trails Association.
Source information: By Kathryn Dawson, USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest region’s Office of Communications and Community Engagement. Dawson is the editor of “Valuing You: An R6 Update,” region’s employee newsletter. This story appears in the July, 2018 edition.