California Riding Magazine • March, 2014

History & Horses
Chief Joseph Trail ride blends two passions.

by Loretta Waltner

Lorreta on her horse, I'm Your Dreamfinder, crossing one of the many creeks that run off the mountainsides in the Mary Mountain area.

It must be 3:30 a.m. Doug, one of my fellow trail mates just went out the door to do first feeding. I hear the generators on the food truck humming. Only one-half hour more to sleep before breakfast is ready. The heat is running in the living quarters of the trailer, so I know it's a typical cool morning. Soon Doug returns with coffee for both Lori and me. Bribery is good on a morning like this. Anytime someone brings me camp coffee, I am up and ready to go. The full moon shines brightly among the stars and the Montana air is crisp. It's going to be another great day.

Friends Doug and Lori Richards and I are on the Chief Joseph Trail Ride. Joseph was the Nez Perce Indian Chief that gathered his tribal members, mostly women and children, and their horses and trekked 1300 miles trying to out-run and out-fight the US Calvary. Every year the Appaloosa Horse Club retraces 100 miles of the Nez Perce Trail. In 2012 the ride was based out of an old World War Two air strip in West Yellowstone Park and was referred to as year nine of the 13 years it takes to ride the entire trail.

Horses have always been an integral part of my life. I grew up in Pony Club, fox hunting with the Arapahoe Hounds, showing hunters and jumpers and doing horse trials. In my "young adulthood" my two daughters and I showed Saddlebreds and had the time of our lives. I have held USEF steward and dressage TD licenses for more years than I care to count, and in the past 10 years, added two FEI licenses. Most people in the show horse world know me as an official, not as a rider.

Horses taking a drink at Mary Mountain Lake while riders visit.

In the last few years I have taken up trail riding and camping with my horses, and today it plays a central role in my life. My late husband, John R., had never ridden before we met, but gladly joined me in riding the trails and loved it. He used to tell me that I had the strangest group of friends. Coming from a retired banker, I can see his point, but he loved the friends, the riding and all the places we went.

After John R.'s sudden death in July, 2011, I needed to regroup. Many of the non-horse related activities we enjoyed as a couple no longer appealed to me. Without his companionship, working horse shows was not as high a priority as it had once been either. Vistas of time opened up, creating a unique opportunity for me to combine my passion for history with my love of horses…and trail riding.

The "Jo"

I found out about the "Jo," as it is commonly referred to, when my then 87-year-old mother and I were on an American Paint Horse Association ride in the Black Hills of South Dakota (yes, she still rides). I met a group of ladies that were getting their horses in shape for the Jo. I started asking questions and investigating. The ride was a month away and requires riders to be mounted on an Appaloosa to participate. My farrier's family raises Appaloosas and they were going to the Jo. Long story short, I found my horse.

All the pine trees have the bark rubbed off the lower trunk. They are buffalo scratching posts.

My trusty mount is a 12-year-old gelding named I'm Your Dreamfinder. (His nickname is LP or Propane). Little did I know when I started riding him how well he would live up to his registered name. He has a calm temperament, is sensible, well-schooled and the perfect size for me. So there I was – steeped in the historical treasures of Yellowstone Park and the Nez Perce Trail, meeting new friends that share my passion for horses and history, with the perfect horse. Truly, dreams were coming true.

Being a horse lover, I am always interested in the history of various breeds and what they were originally bred for. The Appaloosa horse was developed by the Nez Perce Indians in their home area near the Palouse River in Idaho. I never had given any thought to where they got their name, but now it makes sense. The Nez Perce bred tough horses that didn't need a lot of fuel to run their bodies. They were very efficient and able to cover many miles while on the trail.

Once the US Calvary got ahold of the horses, most of them were killed at the command of General Oliver Howard. The horses that escaped the mass slaughter did not necessarily represent the best quality. They happened to be those that dodged bullets or were not on the Nez Perce trail. The rebuilding of the gene pool has been a tedious project. (The plight of the Appaloosa reminds me in some ways of the flight of the Trakehners during WWII.)

This picture shows a burn line from the 1988 Yellowstone Fire. On the right is new forest that burned, on the left is old forest.

Nowadays, the influx of Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred and Arabian blood into the gene pool has created variations in type. Some breeders pursue the original gene pool. Those horses exhibit the smaller size and heavy bone of the foundation stock. On the Jo, it was a treat to see somewhere around 150 different Appaloosas, each possessing its own unique coat color and pattern.

Back to the Jo… Today our group hauls into the east side of the park, to ride from the Yellowstone River to Mary Mountain. The early morning landscape of Yellowstone is spectacular. Plumes of water vapor escape from the vents and twist in the cool morning air. The park's wildlife is waking up and hunting for breakfast. Earlier in the week, getting horses bridled and everyone mounted had been a leisurely process. One day we had to wait for the bears to be done feeding before we unloaded the horses, so our group had gotten rather casual about getting on, just taking our time.

Wild & Wooly Encounters

Today as we unload horses, we discover that casual will not be the order of the day. A large herd of buffalo are running down a hill and toward the Yellowstone River. We are on one side of the river and they are on the other. We all thought they were probably going to take a morning drink in the river. Wrong. They keep coming. By this time all the horses are unloaded and we're scrambling to get everyone mounted. It's breeding season for the buffalo. They're noisy and rambunctious and really do not care what or who is in their way.

Once everyone in a group is mounted, we manage to skirt the buffalo herd with room to spare and head west into the wide valley, toward Mary Mountain. Steam pots billow in the distance, we ride in a vast sea of grass with the mountains and the river completing a scene so breathtaking, it's almost indescribable. The edges of the area are covered with old forest that rolls out onto a plain of grass, making a perfect buffalo roaming area. I notice that all the bark is worn off the bottoms of the pine trees and they're very sappy. I learned that this is from the Buffalo rubbing on the trees. Every pine tree is a buffalo rubbing post!

A loan buffalo, most likely an older bull, laying in one of the dirt rings that they like to roll in.

One of our nightly camp lectures talked about the buffalo. We were told that the old buffalo bulls would not go chasing after the cows, they would leave that to the younger bulls. The old bulls go off by themselves. Our group rode by some of these lone bulls. They are huge! They like to lay in dirt wallows that they make.

One thing about riding in Yellowstone is that you can never count on the footing being the same for very long. Springs that come to the surface make their own paths down the mountain sides and into a bog on the flatter areas. This area has a lot of springs and bogs to cross. The geese are out in droves, along with some large hawks. Crossing one of the bogs, LP's right front leg sinks out of sight. He pulls himself up at a funny angle and takes a bad step. I quickly get off, certain that he's pulled something. Thankfully he walks out fine with only a lost shoe. An easy boot from one of our saddlebag fixes the problem and we continue on.

We climb a hill and Doug dismounts to get rid of his morning coffee. Lori and I wait while he disappears over a ridge. Then we heard him yell, "We have bears over here." He found a momma grizzly and her two cubs. They took off running, but we see them stop, stand up and look at us, then go a bit further. Lori and I decided we would work on a new version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears for Doug's benefit.
Further up the mountain we see where the forest fire of 1988 came over the hill. The new forest and the old forest meet. The new forest has lots of deadfall in it from the fire, where the old growth is a cleaner forest floor. Descending into the plains and valley is once again breathtaking. We see herds of buffalo and miles of country. Around lunchtime we reach our destination of Lake Mary. After a brief rest, we start back toward the trailhead.

Our group is probably five miles from the trailhead when the support mule decides that he's had enough of crossing bogs. Thus, our afternoon entertainment ensues. The mule takes off, braying and wringing his tail. He absolutely refuses to put his feet in the bog. Doug and his reliable mare Visa come to the rescue. He dallies up the mule and drags it across the bog. That mule can jump, easily clearing Doug and Visa, right along with the bog. Visa is a trooper. She steps up and does her job, although she's never pulled anything before, much less a recalcitrant, airborne mule.

The ride that day covered 21 miles. As we traversed each mile I tried to imagine what Chief Joseph and his tribe must have been thinking as they rode through the area, desperate to escape to freedom. On this segment of the Jo we were accompanied by descendants of those very Nez Perce who were with Chief Joseph. What must they have been thinking about? I pondered this often as we rode.

During one of our nightly lectures I learned that many Native Americans came to the Yellowstone area, not just the Nez Perce. It was a gathering place for many tribes. The fertile ground and ample food sources made the area a natural meeting spot. I know I am incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to ride in one of the country's natural treasures, knowing that not many people ever get to ride their horses here.

For additional information on this day and other days of the ride go to If you would to receive ride notification, e-mail the author Loretta Waltner at with "add to list" in the subject line.