Friday, May 30, 2008

Gaited horses arrive in Montana

Gaited horses sure have become popular here in Montana these last few years but it has been some 70 years since they first arrived. How do I know that? Well, my grandmother's brother had a son by the name of Kenny Gleason. I'm not sure what relation that makes me to him - cousin once or twice or thrice removed, maybe? Kenny and his wife Alice started a dude ranch in the late 1920's, and in 1938 decided they needed to introduce some bloodlines to their string that not only would appeal to their eastern clientele, but could negotiate the rough trails of the Rocky Mountains.

Alice Gleason recorded the stories of those years, and they were found in a closet after her death in 1997. The best of them have been published in a book titled Starting from Scratch: The Adventures of a Lady Dude Rancher. Alice wrote an article entitled "Developing the Trail Horse" for American Horseman in November, 1940. It is included in the book, and details the development of their mountain horse string using Montana's first Tennessee Walker. An excerpt from this article is shown below.

From the Northern Rockies, where our ranch is located, to Middle Tennessee is a far cry. Too far even for smoke signals from Blackfeet Country but still not to far for us to haul a Tennessee Walking horse stallion in a horse trailer, 2,400 miles from Lewisburg to the ranch! And all to carry out an experiment, amid the guffaws of our neighbours, of cross-breeding fine, good natured, smooth Westbrook's Colonel Allen 370197 with the lowly "cayuse" of the Indian country. Why do we want to do this? To try to get the ideal trail horse for our dude ranch business. We must have gentle, sure-footed, quick-witted, tough horses and yet they must be spirited, easy gaited and have style and finish or the dudes won't like 'em. The work is on rocky mountain trails from 5,000 to 9,000 feet and each day's workout ranges between ten and thirty miles. The cayuse can take it; but he doesn't have the beauty, height or style favored by easterners.

We were somewhat concerned about bringinga southern-bred horse into this cold northern climate, especially in the fall of the year. Old-timers shook their
heads and said, "He'll never make it. The first blizzard'll get him." However, it was now or never for us, and we needn't have had any qualms. "Colonel" was dumbfounded at the first snowfall. He pawed it , snorted and whistled at it, bit it and raced around full of excitement over it and then got down to business and grew a fine winter coat, just like any range horse would do. We did not try to keep him blanketed and prevent him growing a heavy coat because we were still uneasy about the bitter winter ahead. We kept him stabled, of course, but there were few days all winter that he wasn't out at least for his exercise and, to the old timers' amazement, he "made it."
Written by the late Alice Gleason
Reprinted in "Starting from Scratch",
Compiled and edited by Genny Barhaugh &
Carol Guthrie of Choteau Montana.
Published by Star Route Publishing.
I was lucky enough to see The Colonel when I was about 10 years old. He lived to a ripe old age and sired hundreds of colts and fillies that joined one of the best dude strings in Montana. I often stop in to see the Gleason ranch, originally called the Circle 8 Ranch. A magnificent piece of Montana history, it is now called Pine Butte Guest Ranch and is owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy.