Horses pull weight on Forest Service pack string

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.

A horse carrying a man approaches the camera

National Park Service Horse Packer Jeff Fitzwater rides “Clancy” during a joint agency horsemanship and pack training clinic on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest June 5, 2018. USDA Forest Service photo by Kathryn Dawson, Region 6 Office of Communications and Community Engagement

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.

A rider mounts a horse in a gated corral, while two riders observe

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Josh Bocook demonstrates how to properly mount a horse, putting his left foot in the stirrup while holding onto the horn of the saddle with his left hand, during joint agency packing and horsemanship training on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest June 7, 2018. USDA Forest Service photo by Kathryn Dawson, Region 6 Office of Communications and Community Engagement

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.

Two women kneel over a package tied with rope, while the woman on the right pulls the rope to tighten a knot.

Heather Swanson, a National Park Service horse packer, left, teaches Amber Deming, lead wilderness ranger for the USDA Forest Service’s Methow Valley Ranger District, to tie a pack using the unique Methow style of packing June 6, 2018 during joint horsemanship and packing training on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo by Kathryn Dawson, Region 6 Office of Communications and Community Engagement

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.

Four people look left of the camera while relaxing in a rustic, white-painted barn.

Participants in a joint agency horsemanship and pack training are surrounded by saddle blankets in the horse stable’s tack room on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest June 7, 2018. Pictured from left are Rob Messick and Zack Schaarsmidt, both USDA Forest Service employees from the Methow Valley Ranger District, Jordan Allen-Flowers, Wenatchee River Ranger District, and Heather Swanson, a National Park Service horse packer and an instructor for the training. USDA Forest Service photo by Kathryn Dawson, Region 6 Office of Communications and Community Engagement

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.

A man ties a rope overhead to secure a horse in a corrale, while a second man observes attentively

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Morgan Seemann, left, teaches Mike Calvert, Methow Valley Ranger District, how to tie a highline, used to tie and secure animals when in the field during a horsemanship and packing clinic on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest June 7, 2018. USDA Forest Service photo by Kathryn Dawson, Region 6 Office of Communications and Community Engagement

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.

A woman rides a horse in a corral at the base of a forested slope

Katlyn White practices riding during a horsemanship and packing clinic on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest June 5, 2018. White is a Forest Service employee for the Wenatchee River Ranger District. USDA Forest Service photo by Kathryn Dawson, Region 6 Office of Communications and Community Engagement


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.

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