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Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;

Defensive Horsemanship Class at Ninemile Ranger Station  

By Natalie Riehl


July 2008 Issue


     We arrived at the historic Ninemile Ranger Station just before eight a.m. on a gorgeous mid-May morning. Located in a small, mountain valley west of Missoula , Montana , near the town of Huson , the working ranger station was a busy hub for pre-fire season, Forest Service employees.

     A herd of horses and mules grazed in the morning sunlight on the hillside above the classic, white Forest Service buildings, that included offices, a residence, a museum and classroom, a large barn, and various outbuildings.

     We were there to attend the Defensive Horsemanship class, which is also the first day of the week-long Packing & Horsemanship Clinic, presented by seasoned Forest Service packer, Bob Hoverson, and “retired but still really active” Missoula-based outfitter, Smoke Elser. (Smoke’s grandkids calculated all the nights that he has spent in a sleeping bag, and concluded a total of 22 years.)


     The class is mandatory for all Region One Forest Service employees, as well as other federal employees, who handle stock as part of their job. This class, or one approved by the USFS, is also now required for all volunteers who work with stock on federal lands.

     Many students were green members of trail crews who had no experience with horses, while others were Forest Service and US Fish & Wildlife employees who were sharpening their backcountry equine skills. A number of attendees were members of the public, and had come from Montana , Wyoming , Utah , Alaska , Nebraska , Pennsylvania , Minnesota , Texas , and Washington .


     This is the 28th year that Bob and Smoke have presented this course. As Smoke said, “We don’t know everything there is to know about horses and mules. What we’ll do is teach you one system, all the way through; not ten ways to do one thing.”

     In their combined years of experience in the backcountry, these two have tested many methods of packing and handling stock, and have come up with methods which work best for them.

     What I appreciated most about this pair of lifelong horsemen is that they are open to learning — they will try out different techniques and analyze them to see if they might be better at accomplishing what they want to get done. These two referred to quite a few books, including “The Manual of Pack Transportation” written by H.W. Daly, Chief Pack Master of the U.S. Army, and published in about 1908.

     “This is a safety awareness day,” said Bob Hoverson. “Our goal is to minimize stock-related accidents and injuries.”

     The class proceeded through the day in both inside and outside “classrooms,” and all day we could hear the mules crying in the adjacent corrals.

     Topics covered included Nature and Anatomy of the Horse; Halters & Tying; Tack including Saddles, Bridles, and Pads; Personal Protective Equipment; Stock First Aid; and a Grooming, Saddling, Bridling, Mounting and Dismounting demonstration.

     The first part of the class focused on the nature of equines, and how their behavior is based on their natural instincts. Bob recommended that all students should watch Dr. Robert M. Miller’s DVD on “Understanding Equine Behavior,” and based much of his presentation on Miller’s concepts.

     Bob covered the behavior of prey and predatory animals; noted that horses and mules are very perceptive, and that their senses are more finely tuned than that of humans; and pointed out that horses have fast reaction times and that many people are hurt by gentle and well-trained horses.

     Next, in the outdoor classroom next to a large corral, Smoke covered saddle and pack horse and mule anatomy, and demonstrated safe techniques for handling feet and working next to stock.

     He then moved into the subject of halters, showed the class his large collection of halters and leads, and discussed which are good and which should be avoided at all cost. I found myself cringing at halters and lead ropes I had known in my past, and recognized his advice to be aware of pot-metal snaps and hardware and ill-engineered halters to be sound.

     He taught the students two quick-release methods for tying horses — the Basic and the Bank Robber — and those will be covered in detail in a future RMR.

     After lunch, we were back in the classroom, and I found the next topics of human and horse gear to be of interest not only because of the experience and reasoning behind why Bob and Smoke use what they do; but because I could compare their gear to what I personally use and make mental notes of what I could improve.

     Bob covered cowboy hats, helmets, boots, safe boot soles, waterproofing products, chaps, chinks, fringe, and his raincoat.

     Smoke covered stock saddles, chaps, his raincoat, saddlebags, contents of saddlebags, stirrups, cinches, cinch rings, latigos, breast collars, cruppers, pigtails, fencing tool, hobbles, saddle pads, first aid kit, headstalls, bits, and hackamores.

     The day was packed with good information, and would be of value to both beginning and experienced horse and mule riders.

     I enjoyed spending the day at Ninemile — watching the lilacs outside the classroom flutter in the slight breeze; smelling the leather in the saddle shop; watching the Ninemile crew run the mules through the chute for their spring haircuts; hearing my feet on the wooden floorboards of the blacksmith shop; listening to the questions of the students; listening to the answers of Bob and Smoke; and scratching the forehead of a mule or two who wandered over to the fence.


     Be sure to check future RMR’s for some of the tips presented by Smoke Elser and Bob Hoverson in their Defensive Horsemanship Class.


Ninemiles’s Colorful History

     The Ninemile Remount Breeding Program was in operation from 1930 to 1954, and specialized in raising horses and mules for the Forest Service’s fire fighting efforts. The Ninemile facility was completed in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and became a ranger district when the Remount was closed. In 1980, Ninemile was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

     Today, Ninemile is in-part a working ranch that put up about 350 tons of hay in 2007. They winter horses from over 23 ranger districts, including those in the Idaho Panhandle and across Montana , to Idaho ’s Salmon/Challis, Sawtooth, and Clearwater districts, and Wyoming ’s Bridger-Teton and Pinedale districts.

     The Ninemile Wildlands Training Center offers a series of wilderness courses to both the public and USFS employees. These include several equine and packing clinics, back country survival techniques, dutch oven cooking, and historic building maintenance and repair.

     Course teacher and packer Bob Hoverson spends the summer months packing in equipment and supplies to backcountry rangers and fire crews in national forests and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

     The historic barn is used today as a center for drying and repairing firehose, and for storing other firefighting equipment. In the off-season, firehose is stretched out the length of the barn. Other outbuildings on the premises include a blacksmith shop; a saddle and harness repair shop; and the historic stud barn.

     Local school children enjoy field trips to Ninemile at the end of the school year.

     For more information, call 406-626-5201, or visit


Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


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