Tall in the Saddle

Local equestrians serving community while riding the trails
Friday, February 15, 2019
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Judith Basin Back Country riders take a break from trail maintenance.

Photo courtesy of Henry Gottardi

At a stage of life when some equestrians consider giving up riding for fear of injury, the members of one group are not only riding strong, but also are engaged in mounted adventures. That group is the Judith Basin Back Country Horsemen.

Lewistown’s Henry Gottardi, president of the local chapter, said much of his involvement with the organization flows from its mission to make sure public lands remain open to recreational use for those with horses or mules.

“My wife [Sharon] and I have owned horses for over 40 years,” Gottardi said. “We both think they are amazing animals. We enjoy riding; it’s something we can do together. With Back Country Horsemen, we get to ride with friends, exploring new country or just taking a relaxing ride on trails we know well.”

Gottardi said his favorite trails are in the Little Belt Mountains: either Arch Coulee or the Middle Fork into the Lost Fork trails.

But there is more to the organization than just riding.

“We use horses on trails, so we give back by maintaining trails. The Forest Service and BLM have experienced budget cuts so they have fewer people to do trail maintenance,” Gottardi said. “We [JBBCH] have four trails we maintain under agreement with these agencies. We clear downed timber and brush and make sure trails are not blocked.”

“When we do that,” he added, “it’s not just for horses, hikers or cyclists, although our work helps all trail users. But it also gives us a position to give input on trail and parking area design, to make sure designs work for those on horseback and hauling trailers.”

The group’s volunteer projects range from only a few hours to several days, depending on what shape a trail is in.

Sometimes the work requires the use of chain saws and other equipment, not to mention packing that equipment in and out on horseback…hard work for even the most fit of riders. However, members of the Backcountry Horsemen bring a lot of experience and training to the job.

“We are required to have a number of certifications, such as First Aid, CPR and Horse Safety,” Gottardi said. Horse safety, he explained, is an eight-hour training. Those running the chain saws must attend a two-day sawyers training.

It’s a lot of work, but Gottardi apparently thrives on it, as he is in his 12th year with the Back Country Horsemen.

“This is a group of good people, nice people,” he said. “This organization gives us the ability to learn and share information. That’s what keeps me and my wife involved.”

JBBCH members Karen and Bill Kuhlmann agree with Gottardi. Karen said for her, involvement with the group also adds a feeling of security when she is riding trails.

“When we’re riding with the group, we have the security of riding with experienced and trained people,” she said. “We’ve all gotten training in defensive horsemanship, so our riders know how to deal with horses of different temperaments when negotiating different obstacles, like fording streams or opening and closing gates. The group previews the ride, so riders know what to expect. We all check on each other and if your cinch is coming loose, someone will let you know.”

Karen, who learned to ride in her 60s, said she feels a level of comfort when riding with the JBBCH that allows her to keep riding. She also enjoys the group’s outreach activities, such as the Sharing Trails Day they, in partnership with the BLM, put on for elementary students once a year.

“We teach trail etiquette, such as who yields to whom when different trail users meet,” Kuhlmann said. “ We teach what you need to know to be safe in the backcountry. These days not every child gets that kind of education at home.”

The group also organizes riding clinics and runs the Stick Horse Rodeo, part of the Montana Winter Fair, along with riding and other social activities.

Bill Kuhlman said the group’s broad mission keeps him interested.

“We do a variety of things. We have a few meetings, we discuss legislation, we participate with the state Back Country Horsemen, we provide education and we socialize. You can pick what you enjoy,” he said, adding he started riding when he moved to Montana, and he still has two horses, an appy and a quarter horse.

“I wanted to move to Montana when I could still climb mountains, and with this organization, I’m doing it. I feel the purpose of the group is important. Of all the boards I’ve been on, this is a good one.”

With around 30 members, the Judith Basin Back Country Horsemen is one of 18 chapters of the organization in Montana. There are chapters in 31 states across the nation.

“I’ve met a lot of really fine people in our community and around the state through this group,” Bill said.

Anyone interested in learning more about the group can call Henry Gottardi at 538-2688. See more stories on active community members in our Senior Lifestyles special edition inside today’s paper.

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