Montana’s fading cowboy culture
By Jim Urquhart
“It’s been a wild ride. Thank you.”
And with that Renee and Kail Mantle closed a chapter of American history. On Sunday the husband and wife team held the closing ceremonies to end the last of 11 horse drives they have completed with their company, Montana Horses, after racing over 300 horses through the western outpost of Three Forks, Montana.
The duo, a redheaded former theater major preparing for law school and a tanned wrangler who is a former rodeo champion, have been operating Montana Horses off a plot of land north of town since 1995 when they started with just 14 head of horses. Recently the plot of land has grown to 500 acres where they lease hundreds of horses, each one of which Kail and Renee know by name, to dude ranches and trail ride companies throughout the west and in many national parks. The Mantle family has a long tradition of supplying and tending to horses, leasing horses in various western states since 1964.
Last year the pair announced that they plan to begin selling the horses in their herd. According to Renee many of them will be purchased by their leasing clients. While the herd is being reduced they have added about 300 beef cattle to their land. The Mantles also plan to sell their ranch next to the Missouri River and possibly sail the world.
The Mantles opted in the direction of cattle after several years of battling to continue a thriving business in a market where horses are no longer profitable when compared to cattle; a story that seems to be becoming increasingly familiar with more stories of dude ranches and outfitters closing their doors after years in the business.
Every spring over the course of three days the herd of horses are gathered off the winter range from the mountains south of town and driven 35 miles to the Mantle’s 500 acres to be picked up by leasing clients after making a run through the middle of town where the streets are lined by thousands of people looking to catch a glimpse of the herd running past.
Doreen Lee, a wrangler from Cameron, Montana, taking part in her fourth drive noted that this type of working drive is becoming more a piece of history than contemporary knowledge. “Some day people will talk about how it was done and I can say I did it … I am so blessed to be part of it,” Doreen said.
The west is my home and ever since I can remember, cowboys have been the image of hard work, hard love and a real sense of integrity. Horses have always symbolized power and intelligence beyond what I am capable of. Without the two occupying the pastures and mountains I run to, the west doesn’t have the spirit I hold so dear. Montana is big sky country; some of the most pristine land in the world runs under the hooves of horses in this part of North America. The cowboys and cowgirls around these parts are built with hearts pumping strong and shoulders sturdy enough to carry the weight of the big sky and the mountains together.
There are cowboys and wranglers like Shad Broadman, a former world champion rodeo rider, who run through the mountains chasing barbwire fences and who is at home under the stars. In Shad I witnessed hard work and determination, but I also saw the kindness of the west. One minute he was a tough cowboy who could beat the hell out of the Marlboro Man and in the next moment he lit up with a youthful grin that breaks from under the hat when I showed him a photo I took of him riding his horse.
“I love the run and those horses… and I like the people,” Shad said. What separates this drive from the various dude ranches and trail drives is that this is a real working drive to bring the horses off the winter range and prep them to be sent across the west to their clients – but it comes with risk. Twenty-five year old Sara Fry, completing her third drive when a horse reared-up and rolled on her, luckily only breaking her clavicle bone and separating ligaments in her shoulder commented while holding her left arm in an sling, “it is the end of something you will never see again.” While standing near the horses, unable to ride again in the drive she said, “there is a saying, ‘the best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse.”
Dr. Al Carr has been a wrangler on the drive for 10 years and is in charge of taking care of the injured people along the way. Most of the injuries have been minor with no fatalities, only minor head injuries and broken bones. There is also the steady cool care required while tending to a few wranglers after heavy nights of drinking by the camp fire. Carr summed it up as the drive was nearing an end, “the old west is disappearing right before our eyes”. On the fading cowboy culture, he added “it’s a goodness that defies imagination.”
These strong horses have a sense of the world I have very rarely witnessed in people. They have the ability to look a man in the eyes and dissect his character. There is no faking it with a horse. They won’t buy it and they know they are the ones in control no matter who is on top. This is exactly why I don’t ride. They have the capacity to see through people and in many respects I am not ready to confront what they may show me.
At the end of the drive with the horses safely in their pastures, the Mantles dismounted with about a dozen of the horses surrounding them, vying for their attention. Renee said, “I think I did take a moment to reflect while riding on Main Street. It was awesome.” Kail noted he won’t miss the hard work required to successfully and safely complete a drive, “It’s gone as good as it has ever gone. We finally got good at it.”
“It is bittersweet, I will miss the mayhem,” said Renee.
The horse drives across the west may be coming to an end and the western way of life may be fading but through this assignment I was granted an experience I will always carry with me and hold so dear to my heart. The drive may be over, but it will live on with all of us that witnessed it.
(View a large-format selection of photos here)