Photographers' Blog

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.

Authentic American traditions alive in Montana

Photographer Jim Urquhart covers the Montana Horse’s spring drive. Image courtesy of Kyle Hausmann-Stokes

At noon on Sunday I found myself standing alone in a pasture in the middle of a ranch in Three Forks, Montana looking down at my cameras that had flecks of vomit on them. I tore off my shirt to clean them as best I could, while trying to figure out how to find some of the dignity I had just lost.

The bush plane that dropped me off in my smelly spot of Big Sky Country had just taken off. As I tried to clean myself off while swearing profusely in the direction of a barbed wire fence because I had never been airsick before, I stopped and questioned how in the hell I found myself in this position. After a few moments of cursing virtually everything sacred in the world and listening to the now vomit smelling plane fly away it hit me like the voice of a supportive dad, “clean up your cameras, find somewhere to throw your shirt away… for God’s sake pull up your skirt, you are in the middle of one of the best assignments of your career! Oh, and find somewhere to wash your face and hands, you smell like hell.”

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