Heather McKinnon travels to Montana to learn a special kind of horsemanship in a stunning environment.
Complacency was my problem. After two hours in the midday heat, working the five black steers through the forest down the mountain, wrangler Desiree and I had them close to the holding yard, where the truck could pick them up. The sun was easing, casting a softer autumn light on the fields below. I began to imagine the dinner spread waiting back at the ranch house, a big glass of red ... suddenly one of the steers broke, darting past me down into the pines.
Desiree flashed past, long black plaits flying, looking like a movie star straight out of an old John Wayne film. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” she yelled. Then, laughing: “Stupid steer.” Desiree reassured me that she didn’t blame me. Polite and lovely as ever, even at full gallop.
But then all the wranglers at the McGinnis Meadows ranch were like that — helpful, attentive, patient under pressure.
The ranch specialises in teaching natural horsemanship.
My sister and I had come to McGinnis — near Libby, in north- west Montana — mainly for natural horsemanship lessons, stopping for a week on a US road trip. We chose McGinnis because it is not a head-to-tail trail ride “dude ranch”. It specialises in teaching the Buck Brannaman-style of horsemanship made famous by the so-called “horse whisperer”.
Rolling in through the Bible Belt, through Libby and down a long drive into the ranch, a good first sign: it looked like it did in the photos. Log cabins in evergreen fields surrounded by gentle birch woods with imposing mountain ranges around. Herds of beautiful, healthy quarter horses of all colours grazed in the distance. As we were taken to our cabin, right on the edge of the silver beech thicket, deer peeked round.
After welcome drinks, we joined fellow riders at orientation, with the wranglers listening in as we detailed our riding experience, working out which horse to allocate each rider.
There were all levels of riders. Sherry and big Damon, the ever- so-affable Texans, had their own ranch — “well, gee, we already know how to ride” — but wanted to come and see how they do it Montana style. Then there were French honeymooners Charlotte and Come, two older women from the east coast with Katherine Hepburn poise (including on horseback), Jodi the snake wrangler and another Aussie, Madeleine, also from Perth (we do get around). There were also return visitors: another four Americans and a Frenchwoman.
On the board in the big dining room (always a prayer before meals) was a whiteboard where we wrote what we wanted to do the next day: horsemanship in the arena; cattle work on the mountains, which they call Graze (as this is where the steers graze to put on weight); or riding out in the fields. Old handers and return visitors sign up straight away for Graze but for us first-timers, it was arena lessons — a chance for the wranglers to check your ability.
In the saddling barn.
In the crisp early-morning light, a second good sign: a little speech from head wrangler Randy that “here horses come first, so listen up”. It was a philosophy demonstrated in action all through the week, as wranglers watched to make sure you were doing the right thing by the horse, be it bridling up at the hitching line or out on the mountain.
Our first horsemanship lesson was with the ranch owner Shayne Jackson, who has done 300 Brannaman clinics over the years. And though he said he was still learning, he could — seemingly without moving in the saddle at all — make a horse turn on a penny at high speed, back up at a rapid pace and stop on a dime. He showed us all of this, and a lot more.
In the afternoon session, a younger wrangler, Christine, was in charge. She gave us a task straight away and rode around us as we attempted to get our horses to do as asked, helping out but keeping us moving. My horse Jack was keen as his colour — mustard — and we really clicked.
At dinner, some of the old hands were talking about Graze the mountain. It was pretty steep, we were warned. We signed up for more horsemanship lessons. Our teacher this time was another young wrangler, Robbie, who had been learning this style of horsemanship since he was eight. Tall, lean and patient, he was an excellent teacher, persisting and persisting until we “got it”.
In the afternoon, we headed out to the meadows to put arena lessons into practice. At the end of our day with Robbie, the colt he was riding — which could hardly stand still for a minute at the start of the morning — was relaxed and loping along, just like an experienced ranch horse.
Partway up the mountain.
It was a while since I had spent more than an hour on horseback, so I was glad to discover that Invisible Zinc suncream is brilliant for soothing thigh chafe.
At dinner, Damon had obviously had a pretty good day, too, up on Graze looking for the steers. He was all praise for Lucy, the big Belgian horse he had been riding: “Why, she could go for a week without stopping, a damn steam train, and no mistake, that mountain ain’t nothing to her.”
The next day, we headed up to Graze: a fun day, talking and laughing as we bush-bashed up and down on the sure-footed horses, drinking in the glorious views at the top across the pined mountains and green stretches to small towns.
The next morning, it was our turn for jingling — going with the wranglers to bring the horses in for the day. We started before sun-up on horses used just for this. To ride behind the herd, steam rising from their collective breath, seemingly alone, the other riders lost in the morning mist, was one of those eternity moments.
Bringing in the herd.
We opted for Graze again the next day. I was in luck and was paired off with Desiree (who is a wrangler in summer and a secretary all-year round) to go off on our own. We set off at a brisk pace, Jack still as nimble and quick as his namesake. It was at the top of Graze we found five of the wanted steers (identified by their tag numbers) and headed down. Of course, Des and the horses did most of the work but still the horsemanship lessons were coming into play for me as we flanked and cajoled the steers.
Then Des was off after the errant beast and I was left with the other four. Jack watched keenly and we were working hard: this way then that, covering their attempts to flee. I was silently hoping Des would be back soon. The errant steer came flying back out of the pines, heading for us. Jack didn’t even lift his head to check, focusing — as I should — on the ones we had to hold. And we did. Des emerged fast and seeing the steers together, had a look of relief and surprise. I was as proud as a four-year-old with a mud cake.
The last day was more lessons with the brilliant Robbie, who by the end of the day had us galloping to a quick stop, with spin and leg yields by the plenty. Nope, this is no dude ranch. This is Montana cowboy country of far blue skies and meadows rolling in to big horizons, where the horse is all.
For more details on McGinnis Meadows ranch, see mmgranch.net.
The nearest airport to is Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell — numerous airlines fly there from Seattle. The ranch can arrange transfers from Kalispell.