Next Generation Packers – Flathead Beacon


One summer evening, three horse packers entered the Bob Marshall Wilderness north of Lincoln to pack a track crew. The crew had been crammed into the desert by another group of horsemen and were waiting for the line of animals to pull out their gear the next morning.

“Usually when you meet someone at the start of a trail or on the trail who is a packer, it’s an outfitter or someone from a backcountry riding chapter – a man or woman. an older woman, ”said Rick Mathies, president of the NorthWest Montana Back County Horsemen Chapter. “But then these kids of 15, 16 and 18 come in and pack the crew and they know very well how to do it.”

“The group was a little shocked,” added Mathies. “But it’s a pretty cool experience for the kids to be able to do it for the adults and to do it on their own.”

The children Mathies refers to are Melanie and Seline Totten and Judah Westphal, three members of the 4-H Trail and Packing program, a one-of-a-kind partnership between the local 4-H extension office and the Back Country Horsemen.

The Flathead Valley Back Country Horsemen Chapter was founded in 1973 and has grown rapidly enough to help found Chapters in the Western States and amalgamate into a national organization dedicated to educating and inspiring people. like-minded people on the use of backcountry stocks and assisting government agencies in the upkeep and management of backcountry areas.

“A lot of these members are getting older,” said Mathies, who started packing when he was in his 50s. “There aren’t a lot of young people coming into the organization, so some of those packaging skills are lost. “

Rick Mathies, President of the Northwest Montana Back Country Horsemen, pictured in Herron Park on September 21, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flat head beacon

In 2015 Mathies and a group of like-minded horse and off-trail enthusiasts decided to create a new chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen of Montana, the Northwest chapter, aimed at young people and families.

“We wanted to do things a little bit different and try to find a way to bring young people, young people and families into the backcountry,” he said. “We wanted to focus on passing what we could to the next generation. “

Mathies said there had been discussions in the past about starting a packing group in 4-H, so it was a natural progression to start conversations about a partnership. Other than a bit of a group packing program in Bozeman, there wasn’t much of an existing framework to create a horse packing program, but in 2016 the program started with 14 children.

“It helped that three or four of the kids were already in our section and their families were involved,” Mathies said. “They gave us a lot of good feedback on whether we were communicating with the kids the right way or just with a bunch of old people who talked a lot.”

Patrick Totten and other members of the Northwest Montana Back Country Horsemen walk through Herron Park as part of a packing demonstration on September 11, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flat head beacon

The program’s program revolves around a series of off-season racing clinics that teach young people the basics of horse racing. Members progress through five levels that cover the basics of horseback riding, manty prep, and bag loading, culminating in leading a multi-day packing trip and teaching another group or member how to pack.

Thirty-four young people signed up for the program in 2020, and Mathies said 27 were involved this year, including Westphal, who progressed through all levels in a single year.

The Totten sisters, along with their brother Patrick, started packing with their dad around the age of 11, then joined the 4-H program when it launched.

“Even with our parents who trained us, we learned all the basics of 4-H,” said Melanie, 18. “How to do loads, how to put on the saddles, how to take care of the horses. All of our basics, how to deal with what’s going to happen on the track, came from 4-H.

Melanie, Seline, 15, and Judah, 17, used their skills this summer to team up for the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation.

Melanie Totten, left, and Seline Totten of the Northwest Montana Back Country Horsemen pack bags at a protest in Herron Park on September 11, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flat head beacon

“It’s super relaxing there,” Melanie said. “Yes, there are things going on, horses may react differently than in 4-H, but we can handle it. We can handle whatever happens to us there. “

Over the summer, the team packed into dozens of volunteer groups and trail crews, building a reputation for their backcountry skills, bolstered by their youth.

“We planned each trip ourselves – we funded it, we planned it, we made it,” Melanie said. “All summer we had the support of the Back Country Horsemen, but it was entirely our responsibility and we did it. ”

Mathies says the 4-H program did exactly what it was intended to do: spark passion in the younger generation and pass the packaging torch.

“I’m not going to lie, we started talking about next year,” Seline said. “We have all decided to quit our jobs and will be back to pack our bags next summer. “

A Northwestern Montana backcountry riders jacket hangs from a fence post in Herron Park on September 11, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flat head beacon

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