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A Non-rider’s Riding Vacation to Montana

As a non-rider (or extremely novice rider—you take your pick), I’m excited to finally have a story of my own to share on the SmartPak blog. My husband and I just got back from a week and a half vacation to Montana. We traveled there for two different weddings that were happening within a week of each other. We each had a longtime friend from New England getting married in Southern Montana—what are the odds?

We began our vacation with my Wedding #1: my friend Abbie’s wedding at Chico Hot Springs. After I booked our room at the resort I noticed they had a stable on the property and offered trail rides. I asked Abbie if she would be up for doing a trail ride the day after her wedding and she said of course. She had taken some riding lessons while attending the University of Montana, Missoula for her undergraduate degree. When it came time to book the ride her mother and sister decided to join us too!

Let me start by explaining that this was only my fourth time on a horse. I just started taking English riding lessons this summer and have covered the basics, but all within a ring. And even then, I had only trotted in a circle while the trainer kept the horse on a lunge line—all very safe and confined. This would be my first time in a Western saddle and on a horse out in the wide open. I was a little nervous and unsure about what to expect, so I talked to one of my good friends who used to work as a wrangler in the Big Sky area. She told me to expect the ride to be very low-key—the horses would stay nose to tail and just follow route that they know so well. In fact, as you can see in my pictures, based on her advice I figured we would just be walking the entire time so I wore shorts to combat the 90+ degree heat. It didn’t even occur to me that we would be trotting on this trip, I just pictured the horses trailing along nose to tail as my friend described.

The Chico wrangler took us on a beautiful ride with expansive views of the Paradise Valley and surrounding peaks. Much to my surprise, the wrangler kept a fast pace, and our horses were trotting much of the time. At first it was a little scary to be trotting out in the open, but then I reminded myself that I was equipped to do this. All that practice posting in my lessons was about to pay off!

My horse’s name was Daisy and she couldn’t have been more perfect. Right from the start I did a good job of keeping her head up and she didn’t try to eat grass at all. This was a relief because I watched what the children on our trail ride were going through and I was happy to not have to deal with that frustration. It was easy getting Daisy to trot. Every time there was a large gap between us and the horse in front of us all I had to do was just press lightly with my heels and then release. Daisy immediately took the cue (“Oh you want me to trot? Ok, no problem!”) and then did a short trot to catch up. It was really fun when we all were going fast and keeping up a trot for a long time, so I really got into a rhythm. As the ride went on I tried changing position by standing in my stirrups (which I am told is a “two-point” position) so I wouldn’t be relying on my thighs so much. They appreciated the relief, especially since I was wearing shorts!

The only time I had trouble with Daisy was when the wrangler had us stop to take a picture. She didn’t want to stay still; she wanted to keep on going (that’s us on the left, on our way to being out of the picture frame). In addition to her eagerness to keep moving, she absolutely had to stay with her boyfriend, who was being ridden by the very nice grandfather in line behind me. It was really cute how she just had to nuzzle up to him and stand right beside him whenever we were on a break. Here we are coming back in after our 1.5 hour ride.

The rest of my time at Abbie’s wedding I made it a point to chat with the other wedding guests since most of them were from Montana, and many were riders. As SmartPak’s Search Marketing Manager, I’m very interested in learning more about our customers and the words they use to describe their horses’ needs and also all the apparel & gear that goes along with riding. These words translate to searches in Google and I want to make sure that SmartPak’s website shows up at the top of the list when someone does a horse-related search. I even stretched my supplement knowledge to have a very stimulating conversation with a farrier and was pleased to learn that he believes in the effectiveness of hoof supplements containing biotin, like our SmartHoof Ultra. And I was genuinely flattered over his excitement upon learning that I worked for SmartPak. In his words: “Hey, did you know that Cathleen works for SmartPak? They’re taking over the world!” referring to our expanding supplement, tack, equipment, and apparel offerings. It was so great to hear people’s excitement whenever I mentioned where I worked.

After a week of camping, hiking, and river adventures throughout Montana and Wyoming, we settled in Big Sky for Wedding #2—that of my husband’s good friend Kevin, who had moved out to Big Sky to ski and never looked back. He got married at a mountain-side ranch with spectacular views, and we also spent a lot of time in Big Sky Village area. One of our fellow East Coasters flying in for the wedding knew I wanted to do some trail rides and asked to do one with me when she got to Big Sky. She had grown up riding hunter/jumper and now when she goes on vacation she likes to do trail rides when she can. We decided to book a 2-hour ride at Jake’s Horses.

They took us on a scenic ride up the Porcupine Creek Trail. It was good to experience a different outfitter and see some new scenery, ride a different horse, and meet a new wrangler. The wrangler was much closer to our age and we had a great time chatting with her. Although the pace was much slower (we stayed at a walk the entire time) we got to experience several creek crossings and much steeper trails than on my first trail ride. About 1/3 of the way into the trip the wrangler called back to us, “Anyone afraid of heights?” We quietly mumbled “No, not really.” It turned out part of the trail goes along a very steep soft dirt cliff, which was apparently a 30-foot drop (but it looked much farther to me). Our wrangler said it’s so intimidating it has made business men cry. Well, we three ladies held it together despite it being so steep and the path so narrow. This was a very good experience for me because it was the first time that I had to place my complete trust in a horse.

Aside from the steep trails I also had to learn to contend with a difficult horse. He was the exact opposite of my first trail horse. This horse, Scar, lived up to his Disney character namesake and really gave me a difficult time. At the end of the trip, I was exhausted from pulling his head up to stop him from eating grass, and my arms were scratched from him walking me into the trees. From what I hear, this is not such unusual behavior for an ornery trail horse, so it sounds like I was bound to experience it at some point. At least it’s prepared me for what might happen with future lesson or trail horses. My friend Katelyn made me feel better by saying that she’s had only difficult trail horses up until this Big Sky ride, so I was happy she finally got a break.

Now that I’m back home in Massachusetts, I’m really grateful for the total 3.5 hours I had on the back of a horse while out in Montana. Not only did I gain valuable riding experience, I got to gaze on some of the most beautiful landscapes in the entire country. I think it’s official: I’ve been bitten by the horse bug!

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