This summer, I had the extraordinary experience of working as a wrangler in America’s first national park, Yellowstone. 2.2 million acres of undeveloped land, and the peaked mountains, rolling plains, and wildlife are something to behold. Everyday in the middle of work I would look out to Pleasant Valley and take in the beauty, realizing how lucky I was to have such a unique experience.
Working with animals, particularly horses, is work that is truly unlike any other. The routines of the horses had to be considered with each new day as we saddled, fed, and prepared them for the trail rides. While I have ridden horses my entire life, working alongside the horses for 12 hour days felt like I’d never actually seen a horse. But with each passing day the routine became ingrained in myself and my entire team, and to this day I still remember the routine that was my lifestyle for four months.
8:00am: The Saddle Chute
Every morning started with herding the “dude” horses (horses used by customers) into the Saddle Chute, where we gave each of them a grain bag and determined whether or not they were going to work that day. Inside, people on one side haltered the working horses and attached grain bags to all the horses’ heads. On the other side, people grabbed the blankets and saddles of the working horses, being sure to warn the other side to get out of the way as they threw the saddle onto the horse.
In the beginning of the summer, it would take us about half an hour to let all 130 horses through the chute and saddle 40 of them. By the end of the season, our record time was 14 minutes!
While we finished removing the empty grain bags after all the horses had been through the chute, the three wranglers who were on the two-hour ride grabbed their personal horses and saddled them and prepared for the ride.
9:00am: The Two-Hour Ride
Once all the working horses were in the corral, we began to sort them and determine which horses would be on the two-hour ride. Certain horses, such as older ones, wouldn’t go on the long ride and instead be saved for the one-hour rides. Once we sorted them, we finished bridling the horses going on the ride, and fixed their saddles and cleaned up any manure (we pick up manure CONSTANTLY over the course of the day, and usually filled up about 14 wheelbarrows a day).
As the people on the ride gathered in the general area for our safety speech, we counted how many children were on the ride. Children were given horses that were usually gentler and didn’t need to be handled as much in order to ensure their safety. While all of our horses were well-behaved, the confidence and strong hand of an adult were better suited for some rather than others.
After the safety speech, the people filed in, with the children 13 years and younger always being at the front. Based on body composition and attitude of the rider (confident or nervous), we then assigned them their horses before helping them on. After a brief refresher on directing the horse, the three wranglers on the ride mounted their horses and the group went up the hill to begin their ride.
9:15: Feeding the Horses
Once the two-hour ride was out of site up the hill, we began to prepare to feed all of them remaining horses. A team of draft horses were harnessed to our hay wagon, and were used to practice their directing. Once driven to the hay barn, four wranglers helped to load the hay wagon with the bales, which weigh about 80 pounds each. They then drove to each separate horse pen (the dude horses, the draft horses, the personal wrangle horses, and the dude horses that were saddled in the corral), and placed the bales into each trough.
10:00am: Preparing our Personal Horses
Once all the horses had been fed, the wranglers who were assigned rides that day saddled their personal horses to have them ready for the rides (or if they were needed in any emergency situation). We were then given our lunch break.
12:00pm, 12:30pm, and 1:30pm: The One-Hour Rides
After lunch, we returned to the corrals to pick up manure and sort the horses for the next ride. As the noon ride was leaving was usually around the time that the two-hour was returning. Every wrangler available then helped each customer down as quickly as possible, unbridled and loosened the saddles of the horses (to make them more comfortable), and sent them into the corral so they could eat and drink.
This same method of helping customers mount their horses and dismount after the ride was repeated for every ride. While on the rides, wranglers provided historical commentary of Yellowstone National Park and answered any questions the customers had in order to give them the most enjoyable ride possible. Many times during rides, we encountered bison as well as bears. Once wildlife was spotted, the wranglers who weren’t leading the ride would position themselves between the line and the wildlife in case the animal would approach. This way, the wranglers would be the front line that would ensure the safety of the customers.
2:00pm: Harnessing the Draft Horses
After the 1:30pm ride had left, the remaining wranglers then went out and caught the draft horses that were being used that evening for cookout. Each draft horse had a specific partner, and you could determine which ones went together based on their face markings. Once tied to a hitching post, they were harnessed and prepared for the night.
3:00pm and 4:00pm: The Rides to Cookout
The first to leave for cookout was a two-hour ride, and then a one-hour ride afterwards so that they would all arrive at approximately the same time at the cookout location in Pleasant Valley.
4:30pm: Hitching up the Drafts and Going to Cookout
Once both of the rides had left, the wranglers assigned to wagons led their specified draft teams to where the wagons awaited them, where they were then hitched up to the wagons and the drivers of the wagon were in place. As the people arrived to their assigned wagons, the “shotgunner” wrangler (commentator) helped them into the wagon with their families.
As the driver led the horse wagons out to cookout in a single-file line, the shotgunner wrangler made conversation with the wagon, making jokes and listening to the customers tell of all of their activities they have planned for their vacation.
Once arrived at cookout, people then grabbed refreshments until the cooks were ready to serve them their steak dinners. There was also an open fire where coffee was served, as well as a cowboy singer who sang all of the favorite country songs.
7:00pm: Return from Cookout, Saddle Chute
Once everyone was full from their dinners and had listened to all the country music their heart desired, the people on the rides then re-mounted their horses to return home, followed by the people into the wagon.
Once we arrived home and every customer had dismounted from either horse or wagon, we prepared saddle chute. In this saddle chute, only the horses that worked that day were sent through, where they received another grain bag and were unsaddled and sponged down. This saddle chute was run by the wranglers who had been on the rides to cookout. The wranglers who had been assigned the wagons unharnessed, sponged, and gave grain bags to their team of draft horses.
7:30pm: Unsaddle our Personal Horses, Clean the Corrals
Once all the horses were unsaddled and put into their pens, we then unsaddled our personal horses, and everyone helped clean manure, hay, and straighten up the corral so it was clean for the next day.
Before we left for the night, we all gathered into the office, where our boss briefed us on the day, telling us what we did well and what we could improve on for the next day. Wranglers then offered compliments to each other about their work that day, and everyone clocked out and went to take a much needed shower.