Saturday, June 22, 2024

Hillbillie Willie and the Sleeping Giant

June 22 2024

Sleeping Giant, the new Montana ride, is only around 8 hours from Oreana, so we loaded up Regina’s trailer with 3 horses and headed there on Thursday. Of course, “8 hours” is by car when you’re on a mission, and our adventuresome trip took 11 hours. 

But when we pulled into Ridecamp in a field of yellow flowers on a private ranch north of Helena next to the Missouri River where the Nez Perce people lived and roamed, and where Lewis and Clark once floated by, it was worth the journey. The scenery is gorgeous, just the kind of country that makes you want to jump on a horse and ride into. I’d never ridden in Montana before so I couldn’t wait to hit these trails. “Sleeping Giant” comes from the mountain ridge above ridecamp, which resembles a giant sleeping on his back.

Hillbillie Willie was of course traveling with his BFF DWA Barack, and his frenemy DWA Papillon, and after Willie's unexpected wacko antics at Eagle Canyon this year, I wasn’t sure quite how he was going to behave at the ride. We’d be doing the 50-miler on day 1 (and possibly day 2) and one of his buddies would do a 25 each day. Willie and I practiced leaving them at times to walk around camp on Friday, and he seemed to handle it well. Maybe Saturday’s start wouldn’t be so bad!

I was hoping for that perfect spot at the start of day 1’s 50, not too many people strung out ahead of us, not too many people close behind, not too fast, not too slow. Who could I ride with that might match Willie’s pace? Willie was pretty calm as we warmed up before the start (yay!), and I ended up talking with Teresa from Minnesota aboard her seasoned 18-year-old gelding Aaz. “You want to ride together?” She asked. I said “Sure!” but with the caveat I always add, “We can try,” because I just don’t know anymore if my horse is going to be on crack or not, and if he is, my plans are out the window.

We let the fast riders go out first, and walked out the gate (!), before settling into a trot. Willie was amped and a bit bumpy, but not crazy (yay!). And with a calm influencer ahead of him, Willie settled into his fast trot, pulling, but not pulling my arms out of their sockets. In fact, he only pulled for 32 minutes (yes I looked) before he settled into hard work, and it did help that we soon headed uphill, up and up and up.

One of the ranch owners Cathy Campbell was present as we rode through a gate onto her land, with a view spread out below us of Upper Holter Lake, part of the Missouri River and the Lewis and Clark Trail into the Gates of the Mountains. Montana grass was green and knee high along the cow trails. 

You could call 18-year-old Aaz a mountain horse, because this 4000-mile horse has completed, among many other rides with Teresa, the Big Horn 100 6 years in a row, and the Big Horn 50 or 75 another 4 years in a row.

My Standardbred is *not* a mountain horse, but today he became one, tackling the climbs like a pro, keeping pace right with Aaz, climbing higher and higher, and higher still, up onto a ridge overlooking the valley below and the Sleeping Giant ridge on the other side, and Helena in the valley to the south. The cool and wind-less morning was perfect for hard-working horses.

Aaz and Willie were pretty perfectly matched in pace, and they seemed to enjoy each other’s company. They traded off leading and following, trotting where we could, walking where we had to on a few rocky shale-y ridges and on the hard climbs. We looped back down into the valley, then turned and climbed right back up to the ridge a different way, and the views were still spectacular. Aaz ate Montana grass the entire loop, but not Willie at first, no sir, he is all business out on the trail. But after 15 miles or so, Willie snatched a bite… then later another bite…. then for the rest of the day he copied Aaz and grabbed mouthfuls of grass as we moved along.

Back at the vet check in camp, Willie only took a minute or two to pulse down. His BFF DWA Barack was out on trail, but his frenemy DWA Papillon was in his pen so Wille was happy to hang out near him during the break. Willie is never a voracious eater, but he ate non-stop for the hour hold (yay!), and his pulse dropped to 48 several times.

NOAA predicted a 60% chance of rain and thunderstorms for the afternoon (oh boy), and the clouds were already hovering. It was too warm to wear a jacket, but I tied my raincoat around my waist as Aaz and Teresa and Willie and I headed out on Loop 2. Before we even reached the road crossing, I’d slithered into my raincoat. By the time we reached the first gate (unmanned this time), it was lightning and thundering. Oh boy. I’m terrified of lightning. I was able to open the gate on Willie, but it was a bit tricky to close on horseback, and the thought of me holding onto a metal gate on a very tall horse made me awful nervous, so I got off to close it. As we started up the road, I kept my head down and pretended there was no lightning and thunder, and when it started hailing, Willie wanted to turn tail to the ice balls, but I kept him moving forward and he put his head down and pretended it wasn’t hailing. We all got a good soaking before the sun came back out.

The two-track road took us along the interstate where we had a tunnel to get us to the other side. Willie is not usually spooky but he wanted nothing to do with this tunnel! Aaz waited behind to see if Willie was going to get eaten or not. I got off Willie and led him toward the tunnel, which he still was leery of, but I pretended it was perfectly normal to be going through a dark tunnel underneath the interstate, and so he decided it was too. 

On the other side, we started climbing, and climbing, and climbing. The sun played hide and seek with more scary and spectacular storm clouds. The higher we climbed, the stronger the wind blew. Near the top along a ridge it was blowing so hard, a gust knocked Willie and me off the trail a few feet. Since we’d gotten soaked in the rain, it was quite cold in the gale. But we kept plodding upward. I was crossing my fingers that we’d avoid the darkest storm clouds with the lightning, and as luck would have it, our trails took us right between the worst of it. 

We didn’t see a bear along the soft two-track through the forest back down to the valley, but I am sure some bears saw us! We paralleled the interstate a while, and our horses were so hungry for the delicious chest-high Montana grass, at times they’d slam on the brakes to graze. A longer tunnel took us back under the interstate (no problem for Willie this time), and the rest of the loop was a flat two-track for miles and miles back to camp, coming in on the backside of camp, with Sleeping Giant over our shoulders.

We’d had the perfect Bubble the entire day, and we didn’t see another single horse or rider on loop 2. It felt like we had the entire marvelous Montana wilderness to ourselves.

It was a shocker for me getting back to the finish in 5th and 6th places (out of 22 riders). We’d pretty much started out in those places and stayed there the whole day. Even more amazing, we finished the ride in 7:07! Willie was tired after the ride, his CRI being 54-60 at 10 minutes, but an hour later he was 48-48!

I’m impressed with my Standardbred! In April of this year he was 12 years old going on 2 and on crack, and we’ve progressed back to a relatively calm start, a relatively contained first half hour on trail, eating along the trail, eating at the lunch break, and getting fitter. And, I think I’ve got my mountain horse now. :)


  1. Thankyou for this
    Just got my first Standardbred and looking forward to know her

  2. Great ride! Bonus points for good behavior after your last ride.