On the 80,000-acre La Cense Montana in southwest Montana, a herd of Quarter Horses grazes peacefully in the afternoon sun. There's a sense of kismet in watching these animals, for their presence here is particularly fitting.
Near La Cense, at the base of the Pioneer Mountains, the land holds memories of a time long ago. Here, Meriwether Lewis negotiated with Shoshone Indians for desperately needed horses, so the Expedition could traverse the Bitterroot Mountains to the north and make its way to the Pacific Ocean.
The year was 1805. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had just completed their first major goal-reaching the headwaters of the Missouri River at what's now called Three Forks, Montana. Three Forks is also the headwaters for the Madison and Jefferson rivers. From this wellspring rising naturally out of the ground, Lewis took an advance party southwest to locate the Shoshone tribe and begin trading.
That partnership of man and horse has become the stuff of legend. The Corps of Discovery would cross the Bitterroot Mountains, hacking trails out of brush and scrambling over fallen timber, as autumn snows first blanketed the ridgeline. The trek over Lolo Pass was extraordinarily difficult. In journal entries, Captain Clark wrote, "Our men and horses much fatigued, and several horses slipped and rolled down steep hills which hurt them very much."
The valiant horses the Expedition rode bore Spanish brands, meaning their bloodlines likely traced back to the Spanish Barb, from which today's Quarter Horse evolved. The Shoshones had traded directly with the Spanish "about ten day's south along the Yellowstone River" for the horses, which were ideally suited by temperament and breeding for the open spaces and high-altitude trails of the Rocky Mountain West.
The tribes treated horses as full equine partners. Historian Lin Sutherland writes, "The Shoshoni and the Nez Perce were superb, talented horsemen. They were the first practitioners of natural horsemanship, treating the animals with respect, understanding, and a certain amount of reverence."
Many generations and bloodlines later, the horses at La Cense Montana provide the same sense of partnership as their ancestors, and have just as much endurance. The Quarter Horse-which, besides the Spanish Barb, evolved from Arabians, Turks, Andalusians, and other breeds-remains the ranch horse of choice, and is the perfect partner on backcountry trail rides.
The ranch's mission is to encourage this tradition with superbly educated Quarter Horses. Hand-selected from specific breeding farms and brought to the ranch as 2-year-olds, each horse receives up to 1,000 hours of training in clinician Pat Parelli's natural-horsemanship methods before being sold as recreational-riding mounts.
The emphasis is the same as it was 200 years ago-creating a true partnership. Every horse becomes a willing partner, and every rider becomes well-versed in observing and responding to equine behavior. In our fast-track world, this art was almost lost. In its place is an emphasis on controlling the horse through bit and spur pressure, and the use of the martingales, whips, and other artificial aids. Unruly horses are harshly disciplined; a young colt is "broken."
Fortunately, those who follow today's natural-horsemanship movement show the same understanding of the horse shown by the Nez Perce and Shoshone tribes. Horsemen at La Cense treat horses as thinking, responsive animals that first of all want to feel safe. They use natural-horsemanship techniques to turn out gentle and trusting horses, starting them at around 3 or 4 years old.
Ranch trainers start the young horses with Parelli's Seven Games, a systematic approach to developing a language and communication system with a horse, based on the same games that horses use to establish friendship and leadership with each other. Then they progress through gait transitions, turns, and flying lead changes. Because La Cense is also a working cattle ranch, horses are accustomed to distractions and noise. On trail, they're asked to ford streams and stay calm if they unexpectedly encounter wildlife and unfamiliar noises. The breed's strength and versatility come through when the horses negotiate mountain passes and narrow trails.
The Quarter Horse has come a long way since its early ancestors helped negotiate the rugged terrain of the Bitterroot Mountains 200 years ago. Today's recreational riders enjoy riding fully developed trails that offer expansive vistas, camas lilies in bloom, and the sparkle of an alpine lake. These high trails become spiritual retreats; memories of snow drifts and fallen timber are only a faint echo along the ridgeline.
Back at La Cense Montana, a herd of Quarter Horses grazes quietly, as though they've belonged to this land for centuries. And perhaps they have.