Finding Someone to "Show You the Ropes"
Trail riding can give you a lifetime of rewards, but if you’ve never done it, how do you start?
Riding camps are great for kids, but if you’re an adult, the best thing is to treat yourself to a trail ride with an experienced guide on a true mountain horse.
Yes, you will be stiff after your first two hours in a saddle, but that quickly goes away and what you’re left with will be your exciting memories.
There are many day ride locations in Montana, but the best places to enjoy trail rides are at some of Montana’s guest ranches:
Bar W Guest Ranch
Located in Whitefish, MT just 30 miles from the west side of Glacier National Park, the Bar W offers a diverse horseback riding program and a variety of outdoor activities along with great food and accommodations.
The folks at Blacktail specialize in historic ranch-style riding, overnight pack trips, river adventures, and cave exploring. Their ranch is south of Augusta, north of Helena, and east of Lincoln within an hour’s drive of Great Falls International Airport.
Covered Wagon Ranch
Covered Wagon Ranch hosts rides into the backcountry of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, the Madison mountains, and Yellowstone National Park under special use and concessionaires permits. They also offer guided fly fishing.
Deep Canyon Guest Ranch
Located just south of Glacier National Park on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Deep Canyon is a historic dude ranch dating back to 1928. The ranch provides a glimpse into the past as well as access to the gateway of the spectacular Rocky Mountain Front.
The folks from Elkhorn say that even people who come to visit determined not to ride end up falling in love with the experience found on a solid mount with miles of views before them. The ranch is located only 35 miles from Missoula on Rock Creek, a “blue ribbon” trout stream.
Hawley Mountain Guest Ranch
At the end of the road in the Gallatin National Forest north of Yellowstone National Park, the Hawley Mountain Guest ranch offers scenic rides in high mountain meadows along with fishing the pristine Boulder River or rafting the Yellowstone.
Hubbard’s Six Quarter Circle Ranch
At Six Quarter Circle you can ride all day, everyday, on 25 square miles of pristine wilderness on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. Guests actively participate in ranch work whether it’s pushing cattle to higher, greener pastures, throwing salt, or fixing fence. You are welcome to bring your own horse, board and feed are included.
JJJ Wilderness Ranch
The JJJ near Augusta is one of the best places to go to experience a Bob Marshall Wilderness pack trip. It’s a small place with fully-guided multi-day pack-trips for eight designed to accommodate all levels of riders through this magnificent, unspoiled country where the only travel is by foot or horse.
Nine Quarter Circle Ranch
Adjacent to Yellowstone and surrounded by National Forest, the Nine Quarter Circle folks are especially proud of their home-raised horses specifically bred to keep you safe and happy. You’ll be able to watch new foals romping in front of the cabins each day before your trips into the mountains.
Rocking Z Guest Ranch
At the Rocking Z north of Helena, you’ll be able to learn how to work cattle from the back of a horse, ride long trails, or experience Parelli Natural Horsemanship lessons. Horses and riding are at the center of all activities at the ranch. It’s a perfect spot for families and groups with both beginning and experienced riders.
Upper Canyon Outfitters
Upper Canyon Outfitters is in the Ruby Valley near Yellowstone National Park where Native American tribes of Crow, Shoshone, Snake and Bannock once summered. The working ranch dates back to 1910 and it has been one of Montana’s premier guest ranches since 1981.
Once you’ve caught the trail-ride “bug”, you may be interested in taking riding lessons from a qualified instructor. If so, watch the riding instructor give other people lessons. Are you comfortable with the instructor’s tone of voice? Are the horses well-behaved? Are they in good shape? Is the riding area large and free of distractions? Does the tack look clean and well-cared for? Does the instructor explain things clearly and give students plenty of time to absorb the instructions? Do the students and horses look like they’re having fun?
It doesn’t matter if the riding instructor has a wall full of trophies. Competition is an entirely different thing than teaching, and arena riding is an entirely different sport than trail riding. Essentially, the instructor should be skilled at helping beginner riders learn safety, confidence, and how to stay in control.
Locating a good lesson horse who is a match for your size and experience is often harder to find. A skilled lesson horse is worth his weight in gold. Therapy riding centers often have people and mounts qualified for basic instruction, but a horse who can help you learn to ride beyond a slow walk is a special animal.
If you are the parent of a child who wants riding lessons, be sure to stay and watch the entire lesson. Riding instructors are not baby-sitters and your child should not be left alone at the barn.
Riding with Friends
Riding with friends on one of their horses sounds like a great idea, right?
Well, depending on the ability of your friends and their horses, it can be a wonderful experience. But it could also be a recipe for disaster. Most horse people have at least one time when they were trying to teach a beginner to ride that didn’t go so well.
If you aren’t at least a little familiar with the basics of riding safety and you assume that your friends are, you might be leaving yourself open to risks you don’t even know exist:
Are you riding with people who know how to ride safely? Do they wear helmets? Is their tack safe? Does the horse they give you even want to be ridden? Is the horse familiar with the location where you will be riding?Have your friends had any experience teaching other people how to ride?
No matter what, trust your gut. If it doesn’t seem safe, it isn’t.
Find a Mentor
If you decide you want to ride in the wilderness on your own horse, find a mentor, first. Or two. Or three. Or four.
Seriously, it’s good to seek out several people who can help you learn trail riding. One of the most overlooked assets in the horse world are the long distance and endurance trail ride competitors. Generally, they are the poster children for good horsemanship. You can find contacts at either American Endurance Ride Conference: aerc.org (the larger organization which includes Montana rides) or North American Trail Ride Conference: natrc.org.
Even if you’re not interested in competing, the people involved in riding distance possess a wealth of information about how to care for horses, how to ride, how to camp, and how to be safe about all of it. Sometimes, they might even know of someone who has an old trail veteran in their corral who they might let you ride.
The other unsung asset are the people involved in Back Country Horsemen. Most of them have both horse and wilderness experience. There are chapters all over the country, and their purpose is to encourage people to use public trails. You can find out how to join by contacting Back Country Horsemen of America at bcha.org. For information about Montana trail riding specifically, reach out to Back Country Horsemen of Montana at: bchmt.org.