Chief Joseph Trail Ride

ApHC UK director Sue Feast heads out to the land of the Nez Pearce Indians on an Appaloosa horse pilgrimage following the Chief Joseph trail. 

Having been inspired by a report written by Di Wilson, a fellow member of the Appaloosa Horse Club UK, I decided that a commemorative ride celebrating the Appaloosa in the USA would be a great choice for a holiday of a lifetime and to celebrate my 50th birthday. Members of the Appaloosa Horse Club started the annual ride 47 years ago in 1965 to recognise the journey made by Chief Joseph and his fellow Nez Perce Indians (and their Appaloosa horses) after the US government attempted to move them from their homelands near Wallowa Lake to a reservation in 1877. The Nez Perce National Historic Trail begins in Joseph, Oregon, near Wallowa Lake and extends more than 1,000 miles, ending at the Bear Paw Battlefield in Chinook, Montana. Their route is now being retraced by the association who guide riders over a 100 mile stretch each year. The entire trip takes 13 years to complete. In 2011 the ride started in Spencer, Idaho, and ended at West Yellowstone, Montana.

There is loads of information on the ride, what to do and what to take etc. on the ApHC website under ‘Trail and Distance’. Once you have booked the ride and paid your fee a list of necessities for that particular stretch of the ride is sent to you via email. I collected many ‘items’ over the months in preparation for the ride, and left half of it behind as I couldn’t fit it in the suitcase!

I travelled to the USA with Di Wilson and Joyce Nutland. We hired horses from a ranch near Bozeman, Montana. owned by the Vanderby family. Owners Dirk and Terry were carrying on in their father’s footsteps by supplying horses for the Chief Joseph trail ride. I was lucky enough to get the last horse they had available and my thanks must go to Joyce for that. She has done the ride herself several times and knows the Vanderbys well so pulled a few strings and found me a 16.1hh red leopard spot gelding called Dakota.

Hiring the horse was the most difficult part. Imagine trying to hire a fit, healthy horse to do the Golden Horseshoe ride in the UK! The Appaloosas have to be registered with the ApHC, fit and healthy (passing Coggin’s tests) and there was a weight limit. Some dieting ensued and I also got myself pretty fit riding my own horses for as many hours as I could cram in between work and everyday life! After a week at the ranch enjoying the sunshine, relaxing, shopping, watching the sun rise over the Rocky Mountains in front of the ranch house, and riding the horses that we would be taking on the ride, we travelled to the state of Idaho. The ride is a progressive one – you ‘progress’ each day to the next designated camp and set up your accommodation for the night at the end of each day’s ride. The horses are tethered on picket lines or tied to trailers depending on preference. For me the trail ride accommodation was very basic - a tent, a sleeping bag on a ‘cot’ (camp bed), no electricity and no washing facilities. If you wanted a shower you needed to rig up your own from a makeshift shower curtain hitched to the back of the horse trailer with a bladder shower bag hung inside - you just had to hope that the water heated up in the day’s sunshine! Some of the Americans had their motor homes or facilities in their horse trailers, no such luxury for visiting Brits! I did think that a handy Winnebago would have been preferable, although large rigs are discouraged due to the terrain and preserving the countryside. Somehow I managed to dress, undress and nip in and out of a two person tent – a small price to pay for the mountain view outside – and there were portaloos, so it wasn’t that primitive! That said at the end of the trip I decided that I didn’t want to see another tent again (at least until the next time I could afford to take the trip again!) and ended up leaving my tent behind to make room in the suitcase for all my souveniers. All food was provided by the ApHC and was excellent fayre. You chose your own packed lunch so that you could put this in your saddlebag to eat somewhere out on the trail. The evening meal was served at 6pm with a different menu each night. There were even vegetarian options for those that cared for it. There were around 150 horses on this year’s ride. There were also two spotty mules, which were used for carrying veterinary/medical supplies. Everywhere you looked there were spots before the eyes - heavenly for an Appaloosa lover. And there was the added bonus of many other like minded people all intent on enjoying their horses and the wide open spaces.

The first day we set off at 8am and I was full of wonder at what would be thrown at us. Some others were on their 13th Chief Joseph adventure and received a special plaque to commemorate their achievement. The first day was a bit cold and wet so out came the wet weather gear from the saddlebags. We plodded on uphill over the first mountain, stopping briefly for a potty break (gents to the left, ladies to the right). We eventually dropped down into a beautiful valley where camp was in a picturesque meadow. I think we rode about 12-15 miles that first day. The second day was the hardest, seven hours and 23 miles in the saddle with temperatures in the 90s. I was a little saddle sore and sunburnt - you definitely needed to look after yourself out there.

Evenings were spent eating, drinking and dancing. Steve Taylor the CEO of the ApHC would give us a little talk detailing how many miles we had done that day, any incidents and info on the next day’s ride including the terrain and the elevation. Then there was Seymour Young Dog, a Sioux Indian, a very spiritual man who gave a prayer for our safe passage on the ride, and as we set off one morning he was gently banging a drum which was very moving.

The last day of the ride culminated in a steady climb up to 6,500 feet to pass through Targhee Forest into Montana from Idaho and descend to the termination camp below. We had sunshine and hail stones that day. Within sight of the camp there was an almighty clap of thunder and bolt of lightening right over our heads. I had visions of the horses entering camp leaving us all sat on the ground but miraculously we all survived the surge in power above and below and finished the ride unscathed. A sad moment for me as I didn’t want it to end.

On the very last morning before the camp dispersed and we all returned to our normal lives, Seymour was playing a flute from around 6am, which was beautiful and is a sound that will always remind me of the memorable ride and of the Nez Perce Indians who only wanted a peaceful life. I had a great time in the USA, met some lovely people, made new friends and loved the sense of space and the pace of life so different to my own. I had been warned about grizzly bears, wolves and mosquitoes - thankfully I only encountering the latter. The cold nights were also something I had been warned about - as soon as that sun drops so does the temperature. Next time I will be better prepared but all in all I couldn’t think of a better way to remember my 50th year.

For more on the Chief Joseph Trail Ride, visit www.appaloosa.com

Theresa McCaffrey