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Copyright 2012 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;



By Dan Pence, Dillon , MT


September 2012 issue


      I suspect my experiences with horses, both good and bad, somehow relate to the price I paid for them.

      In this case, the mare was a fairly spirited animal, perhaps a bit much for the outfitter’s guests. As I rode her through some rough country, I noticed that she held her head higher than normal for a show-type horse and that she lacked good withers, so a saddle could roll if a person didn’t ride in the middle of the seat. Otherwise, she did everything I asked, and the price was right!

      Bess worked well for both riding and packing that summer and I eventually stopped wondering why she hadn’t been a more expensive animal. Fall arrived and it was time for our annual elk hunt.

      Winter usually arrives in Montana ’s high country by the time hunting season opens in late October. We packed a warm camp with a wall tent, wood stove and numerous other luxuries not common to a backpack operation.


Bess by Dan Pence, Dillon, MT

Dan Pence riding Bess in the West Pioneer Mountains in Montana.

      We packed up Bess’s Decker saddle with three fifty-pound bags of pellets. I rode a young mare named Duchess while leading Bess and trailed our oldest horse, Gabby, who carried a variety of camp gear. We had quite a crew, including both horses and mules, and things were going unbelievably well.

      We were within a quarter-mile of our campsite when Gabby’s saddle rolled and she went down. We had a riding saddle with panniers on her and everything was held in place with a diamond hitch. Our grandchildren rode twenty-plus-year-old Gabby on occasion, but she didn’t get much use and tended to be a bit overweight. Obviously, the weight and age problems had surfaced. We’d experienced such problems with her before and I knew she would just lie there until we got everything straightened out.

      However, it was a problem for Bess! She lunged ahead until she broke the pegging string between her and Gabby and then bolted off the trail and headed down a steep, snow-covered slope through a jungle of lodgepole pine trees.

      I had dropped her lead rope when I had jumped off Duchess, so there was nothing to stop her except for the trees through which she kept crashing.

      Chuck Bowey, our son-in-law, was right behind me with his string of mules. He tied the lead mule to a tree and headed after Bess, who was now standing in a draw full of downed timber. Her saddle had rolled because she had smashed her load into too many trees.

      Chuck managed to get Bess straightened out in the time it took me to get Gabby back on her feet and repacked. Duchess had gotten bored while waiting for us to fix the wreck and trotted down to check on Chuck and Bess, which didn’t help.

      Chuck’s easiest route was to lead the horses down to a meadow where he could follow the creek up to camp. I tied his four mules behind Gabby and walked on to camp. Our friends, Dr. Doug Creger and his father John, led a couple of other packed horses behind us.

      We found that a wolf pack had taken over the canyon we normally hunt on opening morning. There were no elk there and shooting a wolf presented some legal questions if we told anyone. We scouted elsewhere and eventually located elk on a ridge a couple of miles south of camp. I picked up a fat cow there at daylight on the second day of the season.

      Chuck left camp in the dark on the third morning on a quest for his elk, and I followed with Duchess and Bess at daylight to retrieve mine.

      I normally do not pack my rifle when retrieving game since it just tends to be in the way. However, there were a lot of wolf tracks and black bear sign in the area and I decided I might need my rifle if a discussion developed over ownership of my elk, which I had covered with branches the previous day.

      I considered Duchess the more dependable horse since she previously had packed out several elk and deer. I put a Decker on her for the more awkward hind quarters.

      A primitive trail wound up the steep, rocky mountain covered with a tangle of lodgepole, leading to the main ridge and on to our destination. Snow and ice liberally coated the tough trail, so I anticipated walking and leading both horses to the ridge.

      Bess had a riding saddle with a scabbard for my rifle and saddle panniers for the front quarters. I tied her to the pegging string on Duchess’ Decker for the tough climb. The horses and mules that remained high-lined in camp called after us as we made the climb. 


Bess by Dan Pence, Dillon, MT

Grandson Thomas rides behind Dan on Bess as he takes the grandkids for a spring ride west of Bannack , Montana .


      We were scrambling up the trail and everything was going well until just short of the main ridge where we approached a large log we had to cross. Duchess stepped over it with ease, but Bess reared back and broke the pegging string. She landed on her backside on the steep, frozen slope, then whirled around and took off at a full run back toward camp. I hate it when that happens.

      I tied Duchess to a tree and bolted after Bess. I didn’t need to hurry. She had no problem clearing logs and rocks on the downhill run, although she left lots of skid marks along the way. There were also some skinned spots on the trees where she ran between them.

      I found my rifle lying in the rocks in an especially bad area. The stock had broken when she hit one of many trees. I picked up the two pieces of my favorite firearm and followed Bess on to camp. She stood there among the other animals, trying to look innocent.

      She obviously had made one detour when she reached camp. She tried to get into the tent where we kept the horse pellets. That venture proved unsuccessful since we’d zipped the flap shut so loose horses couldn’t get in. She got even by leaving a big pile of horse manure in the tent doorway. I’d have shot her if she hadn’t broken my rifle.

      I was not happy with the horse. I jumped in the saddle without my broken firearm and ran her back up to where Duchess had worn a deep groove around the tree to which she was tied. In retrospect, getting upset with a stupid animal and running her up a steep, frozen slope wasn’t the best plan. People and animals get hurt that way. Fortunately, we made it unscathed.

      I tied Duchess to the saddle behind Bess and led them on foot the rest of the way.

      While I had been playing with the horses, Chuck picked up a nice spike and arrived in time to help me pack mine. It was nice to have a big son-in-law!

      The rest of the trip went great. And I learned more of what I needed to know about my newest horse. Don’t place Bess in a situation where she can spook and run away.

      There may be additional problems with that “cheap” horse that haven’t surfaced yet but hey—life was meant to be an adventure.


            Freelance writer, Dan Pence, grew up in central Idaho and spent 35 years working for the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho , Nevada and Montana . He has authored two books, “Horses, Mules, Men & Mountains,” and “The Fellowship of Fire.” For copies, contact the author at 406-683-4669;



Copyright 2012 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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