Greg Fields pulls his mud-caked spurs off his cowboy boots and throws them in the back of his pickup truck. He's splattered with dried mud and smells like horse sweat and manure, but he's grinning like a kid.
"All in a day's work!" he jokes, pulling his saddle from the back of a sweaty quarter-horse.
Fields has spent the last 10 hours in his saddle, wrangling 120 horses about 40 miles in southwestern Montana.
Fields is a wrangler at the Elkhorn Ranch, one of the oldest family dude ranches in the American West. He spends his summers working as a backcountry guide, taking "dudes" into the wilderness of Montana on horseback.
"I've worked on other outfits," he says as he tends to his exhausted horse, "but there's no other place I've worked where you get into country like this."
The country he's referring to is the great expanse of rugged land in the Madison Range, about two hours outside Bozeman, Mont.
During the warm summer months, the wranglers lead dudes on horseback rides into the wilderness, pack mules and repair the 100 miles or so of lodge-pole fencing around the ranch.
"At the end of the day, you have something to show for your work," says Fields. "You work hard, you clear that trail, you put that fence up. That fence will be there for the next 15, 20 years. … That's something that a man can be proud of."
The Wild Ride to the Hog Back
By late fall, the ranch closes to guests. Fields and his fellow wranglers are joined by the local blacksmith and a few neighboring ranchers to herd the worn-out horses from the corrals of the ranch to their winter pastures of the Hog Back, a broad, low mountain located on the other side of the Madison Range that looks just like its name.
It's a wild and woolly ride. The horses and wranglers travel 43 miles over a 10,000-foot snowy pass before they drop down into the vast winter pastures.
Once the entire herd arrives on the Hog Back, the wranglers meticulously check each horse for injuries, vaccinate them and remove their horseshoes for the winter. The herd spends the winter there in the high pastures of the Hog Back, fending for themselves.
"We'll supplement them with mineral blocks and hay when it freezes over but, for the most part, the boys are on their own," says Fields about the herd of geldings.
The ride can be dangerous, and it's not uncommon for a rider to come out of the saddle or a horse to get hurt. A sunny morning can quickly turn into a driving blizzard in no time, and the wranglers have to be careful not to push the herd too hard or fast over such a long distance. Still, it's a thrilling ride steeped in Montana history.
The Tradition of Herding
"It's a tradition," says Fields about the big wrangle. "We go over the mountain with our horses each fall, just like granddaddy did."
That tradition is kept alive largely because of the unique partnership between the ranch and surrounding public land. The Elkhorn Ranch is nestled in the spectacular river canyon where Yellowstone National Park abuts Gallatin National Forest.
The Elkhorn has permission to move its herd through sections of that land in order to get to the winter pasture at the Hog Back. The Elkhorn depends on the strip of land to stay open and undeveloped so that the herd can make the migration between the home ranch and the winter pasture.
Jim McGuiness, the foreman of the ranch, summed it up quite simply: "You can't run a hundred head of horses through the backyard of a condo unit."
McGuiness, whose father was also foreman at the Elkhorn in the 1960s, hopes the area stays undeveloped.
Linda Miller, the granddaughter of the legendary Ernie and Grace Miller, who homesteaded the ranch in the late 1920s, agrees. "We're lucky out here. As long as this patch of land stays protected and open, we'll be wintering our herd over on the Hog Back and doing this ride."
The relationship between the dude ranches, cattle ranches and public lands means that the sprawl of Bozeman won't extend into the area.
A Modern-Day Cowboy
Fields is a modern-day cowboy. His dog rides in the back of his truck, and he spends more time in the saddle than on his two feet. He believes in carrying on the tradition of the Elkhorn, but he'll confide that it's nice to have Internet access on the ranch now.
"Makes them cold months go by a little faster. I just bought a nice set of reins from a feller in New Mexico … on eBay."
But for the most part, not much has changed at the Elkhorn, and Fields is proud of that.
"Everything's pretty old school here," he says about the ranch. "Most places these days use ATVs to get around, but you can't get through this kind of country on anything but a horse or mule."
He nods up at the 10,000-foot peaks of the Madison Range, which are white with snow. "That's some real country up there."