I just read an article on the Cattlegrowers blog about trailing horses. Author Jack Blerry says, “With the widespread use of the truck and stock trailer, trailing livestock, especially horses, has become a thing of the past in most parts of the country. Many hands do nothing more than jingle up horses out of a horse trap come a morning. In big country, whether out on the desert or way back up in the mountains, one still needs to know how to trail horses from one place to another.”
In 1930 my grandparents, faced with drought, dwindling grass, and potentially starving horses, trailed their 100 head from Cut Bank, Montana to Salmon, Idaho. The 350-mile trek took a good two months and took them over the narrow, steep Lost Trail Pass between Montana and Idaho.
Following is an excerpt from my upcoming novel Follow the Dream, which shows some of the hazards faced on that trip.
“Gitup there.” The cowboys yelled and whistled to push the horses toward the bridge spanning the wide Flathead River. Despite the long drought, blue-green water raced over jutting boulders, and formed deep, eddying pools along steep, tree-lined banks.
Nettie looked across the long wooden bridge. Must be a good 500 feet. Those side rails didn’t look like they’d hold back a calf, much less a herd of horses. And it was a good ten feet to the rock-strewn river below.
Jake rode up front, leading a draft pair on a rope. They would cross first and the rest of the herd would follow. At least that’s what Nettie hoped. She reached over and slapped a straggler on the rump with her hat.
The men closed ranks on either side of the horses. Nettie pushed from behind, her nerves strung tight. “Go on, git, git.”
Jake’s pair stepped onto the structure but halted as their hooves thumped on wooden planks. They snorted and pawed at this new footing, then tried to back off. Jake tugged on the lead rope. “C’mon now.”
First one, then the other horse thrust a leg forward, hesitated, then made another step, and another. Jake coaxed them toward the other side. The next several horses followed, then more. Nettie reined Tootsie to the left then back again, urging the group to keep moving. Ah, maybe this wouldn’t be too bad after all.
Hooves thundered and planks rattled. The entire structure swayed. Nettie gripped her reins. The bridge might not hold up under all that weight. Maybe they should have taken them across one at a time so the horses wouldn’t crowd each other until the railings gave way.
Jake made it across with his lead pair. He called and clucked at the horses on the bridge. Those who reached the other end bolted off. The structure shook in their wake. The horses still on solid ground on Nettie’s side balked at the entrance. They milled around in confusion, flailed the air with their hooves, and whinnied with fear. Anything to avoid stepping onto that swaying, noisy bridge.
Dust swirled. The horses’ fear and sweat was sharp in Nettie’s nose. She saw confusion in the great mass of horseflesh. Animals turned every which way. Some came back toward her. Teeth gritted, she urged Tootsie into a fast trot, criss-crossing the rear of the herd. The men riding the flank did the same, whooping and slapping at the stubborn horses with their lariats.
Someone motioned to Shorty to help and he pulled the chuck wagon up on the left, just before the bridge entrance, to form a barrier.
Nettie caught a breath. Neil’s still inside. “Get him outta there!”