Horses are used all over U.S. Forest Service lands, especially in the west to get work done on trails and in wilderness areas.
What’s interesting about the Blackrock Ranger Station on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming is the way they get such specialized horses. Wild mustangs are rounded up on Bureau of Land Management property, and then given to the Forest Service for free as weanlings or yearlings. Those horses are then trained to work in the wilderness.
“We manage the Teton Wilderness area, almost 600,000 acres of wilderness,” said Tom Matza, district ranger. “(It is) a very wet wilderness that has a lot of river and creek crossings, and there’s no more remote place in the lower 48.”
Pack strings of wild mustangs and mules – also referred to as stock – pack in supplies for wilderness rangers who repair hundreds of miles of trails each year.
Wilderness areas support a wide variety of uses that are consistent with wilderness protection. Bicycles and other forms of mechanical transport are not allowed in wilderness areas, since they are prohibited by the Wilderness Act.
“Without the stock we couldn’t get the work done. They support us tremendously,” said Aaron Deschu, wilderness trail crew leader. “They bring in all of our tools and our food. We have a six- to eight-person trail crew, and we’re doing hard physical labor for eight days at a time.”
He said some of that work is daunting.
“We’re building a bridge this week in the wilderness, and we have more than 200 pounds of tools,” he said. “Today we’re hiking in 15 miles. So imagine carrying a rock bar that weighs 25 pounds. That’s just one tool out of all of the tools that we have.”
Deschu said that without the stock program, trails and bridges would not be built.
Jack Hatch is the stock manager for Blackrock Ranger Station, and he spends time with each wild mustang, training each of them to be a safe, well-behaved horse that can carry a rider and pack tools into the wilderness.
“Every time I get these horses they start to impress me more and more,” Hatch said. “I’ve never seen a horse not work. We’ve never had one not be successful. A lot of these mustangs are pretty handy if you give them a chance.”
It turns out that the wild mustangs are fit for the type of work that they are asked to do.
“I find if you get young mustangs and you pour the feed to them, they have good growth potential,” Hatch said. “Their bone density is better than a domestic horse. Their hoof density is better than a domestic horse. And all of the horses that we keep here just get gentle.”
In fact, Hatch said the wild horses are now preferred over domesticated ones because they can be ridden daily and can take the work.
The Blackrock Administrative site where the horses live has roughly 500 acres with a lot of grass and water, so the horses are sent out every day to graze, which helps keep the cost of feeding the horses minimal.
“What we gain in efficiencies in terms of the amount of work we can get done and the amount of country we can cover is worth every bit of the investment that we put into these horses,” said Cheryl Probert, acting forest supervisor. “Because we can provide the well-trained stock that we need to do the job, we can also provide the training for employees so that they understand how to use these animals safely to get their work done.
“This program really is integral to how we accomplish our work here on the Bridger-Teton National Forest,” said Probert. They remain the most efficient tool to get us out into the back country, and my hope is that this continues into the future.”