APGAR – There are a lot of ways to see Glacier National Park: on foot, by car and even from the air. But Swan Mountain Outfitters General Manager Aubrie Lorona said the most authentic way, at least in her opinion, is by horse. And every year about 12,000 people saddle up and hit the trails of Glacier National Park and the surrounding area.
Swan Mountain Outfitters offers rides starting at one of three corrals inside Glacier, as well as the towns of West Glacier and Essex. As the only outfitter permitted by the National Park Service to offer horseback rides within the park, Lorona said her group is helping preserve a part of the region’s past.
“It was a huge part of how people explored the park initially,” she said. “It’s an authentic experience. There is something rustic about it – that this is how Glacier was first discovered.”
Horseback riding has been a part of the park since its earliest days and, before roads were built into the interior, horses provided one of the only ways to explore the area. Back then, people would get off Great Northern Railway passenger trains at either West Glacier or East Glacier Park and climb atop a horse for excursions that could last days or even weeks.
Since 2006, Swan Mountain Outfitters has held the 10-year contract to offer horseback rides in the park. To do so, the company employs more than 200 horses during the summer months. Most of the animals are between the age of 8 and 20 years old and all are male.
Making sure the horses at Apgar are fed and ready is Hannah Neel, a corral manager who has been with the company for three years and first started as a wrangler. Her day starts early and includes a lot of cleanup – each horse eats 25 to 30 pounds of food everyday and that waste has to go somewhere. Much of her day is spent slogging through mud, muck and manure around the barn, and trying to keep the front clean, which is what most guests see.
On a recent morning, some of those guests included two couples from Oklahoma. After signing a release, Neel or one of the wranglers gives a quick talk about how to ride the horse and remain safe. After that, the group enters the corral and is paired with a horse for the one-hour, two-hour or half-day trip they’re about to embark on. That first lesson is critical, especially when more than three-quarters of the riders have never been on a horse.
“Because we have so many first-timers, we basically have to teach them how to ride a horse in 15 minutes,” Lorona said.
After the group from Oklahoma received their lesson, they hit the trail with a guide through the forest. When they came back, they raved about the experience.
“We’re not cowboys or cowgirls, but the animals are so nice – it’s just a lot of fun,” said David Schumacher, as he climbed off the horse.
Although it’s early in the season, Lorona and her crew are preparing for a busy summer, which includes offering rides in the Essex area for the first time, starting in mid-June. As long as people show up, she said the horses will hit the trail, regardless of weather – “given that it’s Montana, if we canceled for weather we’d never ride.” Lorona said the presence of horses in Glacier help dispel the idea that it’s a place only for hikers.
“People call this a hikers’ park,” she said. “But we think it’s a horseback park.”
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