Riding in Montana with the ghosts of General Custer the Seventh Cavalry - Lonesome Spur

by Hidden Trails 04/07/2009

There's an eerie silence as our horses traipse through the lemon-coloured sweet clover. The only sound is the wind sweeping gently through the tall grass. In bright sunshine, the sagebrush takes on a silvery hue and its menthol-like aroma is a refreshing respite from the stifling heat.
Around us, white stones mark where scouts and soldiers of General Custer's Seventh Cavalry fell in June 1876. We are riding across the Little Bighorn battlefield, in the hoof steps of Custer's last ride. The sense of history here is overpowering. It's peaceful and tranquil now but one can only imagine the horrors that unfolded that day.
We've joined a handful of other tourists on a three hour horse ride over the battlefield, guests of the Crow Tribe in Montana. With the help of our young guide, Hamley, we cross the fast-flowing, swollen Little Bighorn river and then the grasslands of Native American reservation land. We ride through the heart of the Custer Battlefield, undulating terrain that most tourists get to see only from the road. 

Re-enactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn
Battle time: Soldiers ride across grasslands at a re-enactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Afterwards, I collapse inside our teepee on a camp bed. It's been a long, hot day in the saddle and my thighs feel like lead. I think I've got heatstroke, but all I need is a siesta. Later, we enjoy a barbecue with charismatic community elder Henry Realbird, his family and other members of the Crow Tribe.
Darkness soon descends, followed by a torrential downpour. We help Henry dismantle the barbecue tent but when the wind sends chairs flying around our heads, we take cover in our teepee. Like many things, storms are bred tough in Montana.
This Native American reservation is usually off-limits to tourists. We are able to ride over this Indian land thanks to Lonnie Schwend, owner of the 400-acre Lonesome Spur Ranch where we are staying. He is friends with the Crow Tribe and a fifth-generation descendant of German homesteaders who settled in Montana at the turn of the century.
The ranch nestles between the snowy peaks of the Beartooth and Pryor mountains at the end of a gravel track called Schwend Road, near the town of Bridger, an hour west of Billings. Straw bales like giant Shredded Wheat stud the surrounding fields. 'You only get a road named after you around here if you were a homesteader,' says Lonnie.
He's the real deal, a proper old cowboy with a huge hangdog moustache who spent 35 years as a rodeo rider until he retired six years ago. What he doesn't know about horses isn't worth knowing.
Lonnie turned his place into a working guest ranch 15 years ago, inspired by the movie City Slickers. He runs the ranch with his wife Elaine, who is originally from the Scottish Borders. She first visited the Lonesome Spur 13 years ago after reading The Horse Whisperer - the book's author, Nicholas Evans, stayed at the ranch to research his bestselling novel. She fell in love --first with Montana, and later with Lonnie.
'We're definitely not a dude ranch,' she says. 'This is a working ranch, so if you stand around you'll soon be given a job to do.'
A holiday on a working cattle ranch is all about mucking in and experiencing an authentic flavor of life in the American West. For a few days, you become a volunteer ranch-hand. In between herding cattle, mending fences or feeding the 50-odd horses, there's plenty of time to act out childhood fantasies.

Drawing of Battle of Little Bighorn
Last stand: A Sixties artist's impression of Custer's final moments at the Battle of Little Bighorn

Stetson hats and suede chaps are provided but you'll have to bring your own Clint Eastwood-style poncho. This is a hands-on holiday. Those wanting to sleep late, or lie by a pool, should look elsewhere.
Life on the ranch can sometimes appear chaotic - not that guests mind. Be prepared to go with the flow as plans change, often at the last minute. Guests seem pleased to have escaped big-city toxins and welcome the chance to help out.
Our accommodation is a comfy log cabin full of pine furniture, with mains electricity and a flushing toilet. There are three meals each day at fixed times and everyone eats together, giving guests the chance to get to know each other. Long days begin with breakfast at 8am, after which we prepare our horses for riding.
Fortunately ranch-hand Brandon Murray is around to check that our saddles are not going to slide off. Most of the horses have gentle names such as Pella and Honey Bear. I've made a mental note to steer clear of a horse called Macho.
Brandon is wiry and toothless, with a droopy Yosemite Sam moustache. In his less quiet moments he tells us tales about his rodeo career and how the famous bull Bodacious took out his front teeth. And how, more recently, he was escorted from his cousin's Mormon wedding after he spiked the punch with whisky.
'I don't talk much but I know about horses,' he drawls. 'If guests leave the ranch with more of a passion for horses, then I'm happy.'

Max Wooldridge on horseback
On the hoof: Max Wooldridge saddles up in Montana

Later we meet Jeff Taber - another wrangler with a healthy moustache. We help him load our horses on to a transporter truck and drive to Grove Creek, about an hour away. In a spectacular valley surrounded by jagged mountains, we ride the open range and herd cattle from the lower grasslands to higher pastures where the feed is more nutritional.
'The secret to moving cows is you have to yell at them,' Jeff calls out. And the ranching education does not stop there. The Lonesome Spur hosts a series of colt clinics, where you can learn about natural horsemanship. One sticky afternoon, we gather around the pen to watch Mark Dixon, a visiting horse-trainer from Alabama, break in a two-year-old colt that has never been haltered or ridden. In just 90 minutes he is standing on the horse's saddle.
Next day we're back at the Custer Battlefield for the annual re-enactment of Custer's Last Stand. There is a lot of noise - the firing of rifles, the high-pitched yells of warriors - and the air is full of dust and gun smoke. Young Crow Tribe males paint their faces and grab mock weapons, or jump on to unsaddled horses.
Meanwhile, other locals dressed in US Army period uniforms sound bugles and assemble on horseback. A lone horseman stands atop a hill holding an ensign flag. Suddenly it's late June 1876 again and General George Custer, who boasted that his men could 'whip all the Indians on the plains', is about to meet his demise. He is heavily outnumbered by Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, who have formed a tightening noose around him and most of his Seventh Cavalry troops. 
Fortunately, the crowd is spared the more gruesome aspects of the battle; Custer and his poorly trained soldiers - many had hardly fired a rifle before - were stripped naked, scalped and mutilated. Five companies, more than 250 men, were annihilated.
Later we drive back to the Lonesome Spur. Montana is Big Sky country - miles of long, straight roads where a bend is an event. It is one of the least populated states in America and cattle outnumber humans 12 to one.
Back at the ranch we sit around a campfire with other guests and watch a salmon-pink sunset over the Beartooth Mountains before retiring to our log cabin and the nocturnal noises of the American West - the distant sounds of mile-long coal and freight trains, a chorus of chirruping crickets and dogs barking.
One evening, we visit the Cody Stampede rodeo, an hour away, just over the border in Wyoming. The town was made famous by 'Buffalo' Bill Cody and today everyone cashes in on his memory. We eat at the Irma Hotel, which Bill founded in 1902. Two women in period costume and a General Custer 'lookalike' wander the restaurant posing for photos. Too bad he looks more like a mid-Seventies Rick Wakeman in a cowboy suit. 


Max Wooldridge and wrangler Jeff Taber
On the ranch: Max Wooldridge joins wrangler Jeff Taber

Our tickets are collected by a woman who is almost as fierce as the bulls trying to hurl riders to the ground. Rodeo seems to be the national sport, reflecting the toughness of Montana's landscape and its people. Jana Breding, who helps ferry guests from the ranch to Billings airport, is married to the rodeo. Her husband-Scott, is a former professional-who once won the Calgary Stampede. And despite the risks her teenage son, Parker, hopes to continue the tradition.
'Four friends have died in the rodeo and one's in a wheelchair,' she says. 'Then, a few years ago, we lost another. A bull hit him in the head and he never woke up.'
This brought matters into sharp relief. As a soft urbanite, I can barely lift a saddle without risking a hernia.
Our last day, and one final horse ride takes us through fields bristling with more sweet clover. Later, as I dismount, I accidentally smack another horse in the jaw with my heel as I slide my foot out of a stirrup. I worry I may have hurt him but he doesn't even flinch, and just carries on chewing nonchalantly.
In Montana the horses are as tough as their cowboy mounts.

Travel facts
For more information on Lonesome Spur Ranch, go to the website:  Lonesome Spur, Montana
Or call the Hidden Trails office toll free at  1-888-9-TRAILS   or   Skype:hiddentrails

Story by  Mail Online

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