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Keeping traditional horsemanship skills alive

Locations: News Published

By Paula Mayer

If you were driving down Catherine’s Store Road last week, you may have noticed a number of men and women riding bareback in Gus Darien Arena. No, they weren’t practicing for the upcoming rodeo. Ten employees of the White River National Forest Service were being certified in basic horsemanship by the Shoshone Specialty Pack String out of Cody, Wyoming.

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The pack string is part of a livestock program that originated during the summer of 1988, as a response to the Yellowstone National Park fires that burned roughly 700,000 acres ( In the wake of that monumental event, extensive work was required to rebuild trails, structures, and bridges in rugged backcountry. The safest, most cost effective way to get men and materials into the wilderness was to pack it in by mule. Johns and mollies (male and female mules) possess the stamina to haul loads of ungainly material weighing up to 20% of their body weight ( Their intelligence and instincts makes mules less reactive than horses in certain situations.

The Shoshone Specialty Pack String provides resources and support to a variety of projects in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. In Colorado last year, the pack string supported trail projects on Mount Elbert and Kit Carson Peak. For 2021, work is planned on Mount Wilson. Last week in Carbondale, Specialty Pack String leader Crosby Davidson and Jess Hicks ran a basic horsemanship certification. “I love this work,” says Hicks. “I get to see parts of the country I never imagined. I always hoped I’d find a job working with horses. We teach traditional skills, keeping them alive.”

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Sami Dinar, natural resource and noxious weed specialist for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, also participated. She rode one of two horses that are stock assets for the district. “Horses are an invaluable resource as a different form of transportation. We can get further into the backcountry and wilderness where there is steep terrain and no trails or roads.” In the high country, rangers can log fifteen miles a day checking on wilderness grazing, monitoring, and weed spraying on horseback. 

Already an accomplished rider, Dinar has appreciated a number of lightbulb moments. “We literally started from the ground up.” Day one was spent in the round pen learning about pressure and release using ground work. Day two started with bareback riding and progressed to grooming and saddling. And day three pulled together not just what to do but also why to do it.

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The relationship between man and horse is long and storied. In the 1800s, as explorers, trappers, and traders pushed the boundary of the American West, they did so on horseback. You may have grown up in a city or suburb, but somewhere in your family history, there’s a good chance a horse worked alongside one of your ancestors. It is part of our collective heritage. 

As a prey animal, a horse’s natural instinct when startled is to run first and ask questions later. Weighing an average of 1,200 pounds, these domesticated mammals have the advantage over humans in size, speed, strength, and reaction time. And yet, they allow us to jump on their back and use them for work, sport, and companionship. 

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What is it about being around a horse that makes us feel so good? According to Dr. Megan Lamb, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Roaring Fork Equine Medical Center, a normal horse’s resting heart rate can be anywhere from 32 to 48 beats per minute. An average adult human heart rate can be 60 to 100 bpm. If, by being in the presence of these grand creatures, we can sense their slower heart rate, breathe in their comforting smell, receive a velvety nuzzle, and maybe even be treated to a friendly nicker—it is no wonder we feel a gravitational tug toward them! It’s in our history and our DNA.

Tags: #Aspen-Sopris Ranger District #horses #Paula Mayer #Shoshone Specialty Pack String #White River National Forest Service