As adventurous as it is historic, the Appaloosa Horse Club’s Chief Joseph Trail Ride is an amazing journey. I’ve ridden it 11 consecutive years and always feel privileged to be a part of it.
Each year’s ride retraces a different 100 miles of the 1877 “flight to freedom” of the Nez Perce Indians. Depending on where you are along that celebrated trail, you may find yourself on the side of a canyon next to sheer drops. Or climbing a hill so steep you’re leaning forward until your body is almost parallel to your horse’s back. Or braving bogs like the one in which my horse, Dollar, sank to her belly—and proved to me how trail-worthy she was by allowing me to finagle her through and out.
This year’s Chief Joseph, running July 20 through 26, marked the 50th anniversary of the ride. I was one of 120 people riding their registered Appaloosa horses from Powell, Wyoming, to Laurel, Montana. This year was also the 11th leg of the 1,300-mile trail; I started on the first leg 11 years ago in Joseph, Oregon, and plan to be there for the last leg in 2016, when we reach the Bear Paw Battlefield near Chinook, Montana.
Tale of a Trail
That battlefield, now a national historic park, commemorates the final clash in the Nez Perce War of 1877. The story begins in 1860, when prospectors, encroaching on Nez Perce lands in the Northwest, struck gold. Thousands of settlers swarmed onto Indian land, and conflicts ensued. In response, the U.S. government demanded that all Nez Perce relocate to a reservation.
Joseph was attempting to comply when hostilities broke out and ignited the Nez Perce War. Pursued by the U.S. Army, Joseph attempted to lead his band to freedom instead. Eight hundred men, women, and children, including the elderly—plus 2,000 of their prized horses—left Idaho and sought safety with their Crow allies on the plains to the east. When that failed, they headed to Canada to seek sanctuary with Crazy Horse. The army trapped them at Montana’s Bear Paw Mountains, where they surrendered—just 40 miles short of the Canadian border. Their desperate, circuitous route is what we now call the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.
Many Chief Joseph Trail riders are regulars, so it’s like a family reunion each year as riders, drivers, and camp crew gather at the assembly camp. Oregonians Jim and Anne Mischel have been on the ride over its entire 50 years (so far, the ride’s made four full rotations of the 1,300 miles). Anne was a scout and Jim served as official photographer.
Texan Mike Howard, 83, joined us again after retiring from his role as head scout for many years. Mike’s great-great-great uncle was Gen. Oliver O. Howard, the army officer ordered to pursue the Nez Perce.
I live in central California, and it took me three 12-hour days and 1,400 miles of driving, trailer in tow, to get to the assembly camp in Wyoming. It’s a huge commitment each year, but I wouldn’t miss it. The trail itself challenges us not only physically, but emotionally, as well. With each mile we ride, we’re reminded of the fierce determination of the Nez Perce to live free and in peace in their homeland, with their hardy, beautiful horses.
Sharing the Legacy
One of this year’s highlights was a property owner who gave us permission to pass over land that’d been off limits for over half a century. He opened the gate—and his heart—to our ride.
Another property owner welcomed us back with pleasure. Many years ago, during an earlier ride, his then 8-year-old daughter had delighted in watching the spectacle. Now grown and expecting a child of her own, she remembered with fondness the spotted horses and the music from the dance floor.
When this ride comes back through in another 13 years, her child will see the spotted horses and hear the music and laughter, too.
And the heritage of the brave Nez Perce will live on.
Christy Wood is a world champion trainer, extreme-cowboy-race competitor, and avid trail rider. Learn about her clinics on trail riding—held at her Wood ’N’ Horse Ranch in Three Rivers, California—at wdnhorse.com. To learn more about the Chief Joseph ride, go to appaloosa.com and click on “Trail & Distance” in the left-hand menu, then “ApHC Trail Rides.”