Photo by Montana Cowgirl Photography

By Kent Hanawalt

“I haven’t saddled a horse in two years,” said Pol, a rancher I knew in the Bear Paw Mountains. “First you buy a four-wheeler to do the irrigating, then you figure out how good it will work to run in the horses. Then one day you realize that you could be there and back on the four-wheeler in less time than it would take to get your horse in and saddled. That’s the beginning of the end.”

Horses were essential to agriculture a hundred years ago, but that changed first with the introduction of tractors, and again when four-wheelers became common. Most of the horses you see in Montana now are for recreational use only. But not here on the Ellison Ranch in the Absaroka foothills.

Most of our land is too rugged and steep for wheels. In the spring, we use horses to cut out “heavies” and turn them into the calving field, and again to sort out the cows with new calves. We use horses to gather the cattle, sort off the cows, and heel the calves to the fire for branding. We use horses to rope and doctor calves.

In the summer, we use horses to push the cows to fresh pasture, and to cut out the bulls and trail them home at the end of the breeding season.

In the fall, we use horses to gather and sort off the cows for vaccinations. We use horses to trail the cattle down from the mountain, to gather for shipping, to sort off the cows, and to load the calves in the truck. We use horses to gather and corral the cows and to push them up the valley for fall work.

We use horses year-round to check, gather, sort, corral, and doctor.

Gone are the days of trailing cattle up the old Chisolm Trail. But there will always be a place for horses on our ranch.