So Mark Seavey, TSO from This Ain't Hell and Mothax at the Burn Pit (pictured above with me), and I traveled to Montana to take part in the Montana Horses Annual Round Up and Horse Drive. We were honored by being given two spots on the trip as most people have to apply (and get turned down). It's not an adventure for amateurs, and yet that's exactly what Mark and I were. Total greenhorns.
Jeff Bader co-founder of Soldiers' Angels and Kyle Hausman-Stokes of Blue Three Productions (and an OIF vet) traveled to Montana to help cover the event for SA's Heroes & Horses. We were joined by Jeff Pappas who is one of the principals of Heroes & Horses and a very experienced horseman and his son, OIF vet, Mike Pappas.
Our hosts were ranchers Kail Mantle and Renee Daniels-Mantle, owners of Montana Horses and the Mantle Ranch. Also, were Mark and Jean White who own the neighboring ranch to the Mantles and were sort of Mark Seavey's and my adoptive parents on this trip. The Mantles and the Whites are also principals of the Heroes & Horses program.
While we were there to participate in what would become one of the most fun and exciting (ie crazy) things I've ever gotten to do, we really wanted to document and validate the experience for the Heroes & Horses program.
It started out cold and wet (33 degrees and raining). Seavey got the most tame and gentle animal named "Meg". I got a mustang with 'tude named "Goblin". We got along well enough at first, but "Gobbers" always wanted to run, full out, and never stop. He also tried to get rid of me more than a few times.
However, as with most problems with riding, it's not the horse but the rider's fault. Soon enough, I was able to put Goblin's speed to good use. Both Seavey and I learned how to ride fairly well, not really because we wanted to, but because we HAD to.
The first few days was spent chasing 350-400 horses around 8000 acres of some of the most beautiful land I had ever seen. Two water crossings, ridgeline patrols, full speed loping across the Montana open country.
We were told we probably did about 9 miles that first raining and miserable day. No roads. All country. Cold, wet, tired and hungry, we pulled back into our camp in a canyon and gathered around the fire for dinner. I brought a bottle of Lagavulin 16 Double Matured and it was appreciated by our group.
Kail brought out a guitar and began singing non-PC cowboys songs that soon had everyone singing the refrains and laughing. One of his songs was about the disappearance of the Old West. Since we were there to experience exactly that, we all paid rapt attention to it. It was called, "You can't see it from the road". The meaning is you have to leave the road behind to find that freedom that you can only find in America - the life of the cowboy.
Saturday, we got out of our cots gently...frozen and sore all over, we were getting ready for the 15 mile drive all the way through downtown Three Forks. We were fed really well, but I have to say that the coffee was some of the best I've ever had.
Unfortunately, not more than a mile or two into the drive, I lost my left spur, not once but twice. And as soon as I did, Goblin knew he had me and tried for the 100th time to get me off of his back. Without a spare saddle, I watched from the truck with Goblin in the trailer as the others drove the horses through Three Forks.
That night, at the Sacajawea Hotel ("the Sac"), we had a fantastic dinner and a few cocktails. Some of the cowboys danced, but Seavey and I nursed our drinks and went to bed. If you're ever near Three Forks or Bozeman, the Sacajawea is a FANTASTIC hotel. The very friendly staff rivaled any of the best hotels I've stayed in around the world.
Finally, Sunday was the last day of the drive. We had about 12 miles to go from the Sacajawea pasture to the horses' home in the summer pastures of the White and Mantle Ranches. The weather was beautiful and we were ready to go.
The wrangler assigned to us was Roger Young who kept us from falling getting stomped being thrown dying a few times. He's pictured above with me. On Sunday, Roger knew I wanted to make up for lost time from the day before. I had a new saddle and Roger didn't waste anytime. "Up front, now, Matt!"
My job on the last day was to ride ahead of the herd and close any holes in the fence line (or where there were no fences, to actually be the fence). We never really slowed down slower than a trot and the 12 miles or so went by quickly.
With the head waters of the Missouri river on one side and a gorgeous high cliff on the other, we made the final mile or two at a full on lope down railroad tracks. When we arrived at a break in the cliff where the summer pasture was located, I wasn't ready for the view. It was probably the most beautiful piece of our country that I had ever seen. You'll have to wait for those photos from Kyle as he was in an airplane filming us and I couldn't take the time or the risk so high up (altitude) and moving to get a photo.
And of course, we all shared a celebratory flask.
There were a few wrecks and some injuries, but all in all it was an extremely successful horse drive despite the handicap of two amateur horsemen joining the team.
So what did we discover, aside from becoming decent horsemen in a few days of riding across southwest Montana?
Cowboys are a lot like Soldiers.
I'm not talking about the propensity to create new swear words on the fly or the ability to deal with being miserable or having a good laugh at your own expense. Those are definitely similarities we share but not the ones we thought we might find.
You guys know that thing that you miss that you can't put you're finger on. You try to tell people about it but they don't ever get it so you stop even trying. The guys from Ranger Up posted this clip from Blackhawk Down and while it may be really Hollywood, it gets the point across:
That's what it's all about and the cowboys get it. It's why Mark and I, and Jeff and Mike and Kyle are working to bring vets out to Montana.
I believe that we have succeeded in bringing that adrenaline rush, coupled with the dependence on your team mates, about as close to that bonding experience (as we can without getting shot at) that we all miss as vets. This summer, Heroes & Horses will bring combat vets out to the Mantle Ranch to work on horsemanship and packing for a trip up into the mountains. There will be intense hands-on training, some danger, a lot of hard work, and some team work involved. And the veterans' reward will be a great trip with one of the best outfitters in the world, Mark White, and a view that only a very few people ever get to see.
Last, the American Legion put together this video of Kail's song and Jeff Bader's photos...it's completely appropriate: