He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timbers in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat -
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.
-Banjo Peterson, excerpt from the poem titled “The Man from Snowy River” (1890)
Jeff and his mountain horse, Ruger, in Sula, Montana circa 2002.
As a young girl, most other girls I knew didn’t watch the movie The Man from Snowy River, or even knew it existed. I watched it on repeat. I watched it 100s of times. While friends of mine watched princesses (don’t get me wrong, I do love a good Disney movie), I was busy dreaming about horses, riding horses, living back in a time when all you could do was ride horses.
The western movie The Man from Snowy River (1982) is set in late 1800s Australia, a love story between a true mountain man cowboy, and an educated, wealthy lady. But it wasn’t the love story that drew me in. It was the breathtaking mountains, the horses, and the romanticism of the cowboy and their way of life.
The movie is based on an 1890 poem of that same name that describes a story of a wild horseback chase of 30+ men who try to capture a prized horse that escaped, and then ultimately joined the brumbies (wild horses in Australia). When the brumbies start to gallop down a steep mountainside, all the riders give up during the pursuit, except a one-of-a-kind horseman and fearless cowboy who continues the dangerous chase - the man from snowy river.
This is the crescendo of the movie - the incredible breathtaking scene (no green screen) of him skillfully galloping down a normally impassable steep mountainside.
The dream started back when I was 11. At that age my parents gave me a choice, I was starting to get more serious with both soccer and horseback riding. But both were expensive and time consuming, so I could only pursue one. I thought I could always ride horses, but I couldn’t always play competitive soccer….so I chose soccer.
I couldn’t ignore the void I felt, which resulted in the creation of this simple dream: Once I was older, I wanted to move out west and ride horses every day.
Fast forward to my senior year at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Everyone around me was planning their new life and careers in big cities like DC, New York or LA, or some were simply staying in North Carolina – who else was simply hoping to ride horses out west? It didn’t matter to me; I was busy making this dream a reality.
After learning about a fancy guest ranch in Montana from a college friend, I checked out their website. This ranch was perfect for living out my dream, and I just had to work there as a “horse wrangler.”
Since traveling was always a passion of mine, someone had given me the book “1,000 Places To See Before You Die” when I started college. I used it as my traveling bible. I consulted it for years. It took me places in Spain and Singapore and when I turned the page to “Montana” there it was...this guest ranch in the tiniest of Montana map dot towns featured with only three other destinations in this huge state. I couldn't believe it. If I needed a sign, this was surely it.
Before graduation, I convinced a friend of mine to go on this adventure with me. Less than one week after dawning our Carolina blue gowns, we said our goodbyes to our college buddies, our families and packed her 4Runner to the tilt.
To this day, I’m not really sure how my parents remained supportive. I think the idea that this was only supposed to be for the summer, became the only reason our parents let us go. It was a big moment, a defining moment, when we pulled out of that driveway, but only looking back now do I really understand the magnitude.
After two days on the road, I clearly remember driving into Montana and thinking “we’re almost there!” when in fact, we had about 13 hours to go – to the southwest jagged finger of the state. Once we drove into the Bitterroot Valley, it was all worth it. I have traveled to many special places in the world, but this was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe the juxtaposition as we pulled into the old-west town of Darby from where we had just come from only three days earlier.
At the guest ranch, I spent at least four hours in the saddle every day taking guests on horseback rides. We had 50 horses to ride and get to know, and I was learning so much after my time away from riding. The experience was definitely checking that dream box.
Straight out of college, a drink after a long day was often a must. At that time, there were three bars in Darby – a lot for this tiny town. I hung out in them quite a lot with my coworkers. You could tell the locals were intrigued by these party-goer newcomers. In my mind, I was thinking I was only there for the summer, so I didn’t care much about the long looks.
One late afternoon, a friend and I were at one of these Darby bars after work. There weren’t a lot of people in the bar, but some of the locals sat further down. I had seen them on different nights but hadn’t ever talked to them. A large mirror hung on the wall behind the bar. Everyone sitting the full length of the bar could look into it. You know how it feels when you think someone is watching you? When I felt it, I looked up into the mirror. One of the local boys in a black cowboy hat was watching me, me. I felt a pit in my stomach. Or maybe it was butterflies. I thought to myself I’ll just look away. But as corny as it sounds it’s the truth, after that spark my life changed.
Our first few dates were what you would expect– movies, putt-putt, dinners. But then he invited me to go horseback riding. We were to look for cows in the national forest, in what are called Forest Service cattle allotments. I didn’t know what he meant, but all I knew was that it sounded like an experience I wanted to have.
As most Bitterrooters, he had a lot of different jobs to try and make ends meet. One of which was working for a friend and local rancher in exchange for free rent for his 6 cows. That particular day his job was to find all of the cows and push them to a different cattle allotment. An allotment is 60,000 acres of national forest that a rancher can lease for grazing his cows.
This particular rancher had 250 mother cows and their calves (500 head total) spread up to 10 miles apart – all steep mountain rangeland, mostly forested with hidden, grassy meadows. It was true wilderness – only accessible by horseback.
For me, the entire ride with him was déjà vu. There’s a scene in The Man from Snowy River where the cowboy main character is looking for lost cows in the high country mountains. It felt like I was truly living my all-time favorite movie. My never-ending grin was probably as wide as the valleys we were riding in.
But that wasn’t the best part.
I watched him ride - in complete disbelief and awe. He’d gallop through thick brush, close-knit trees and up and down mountainsides. He had a mountain horse who knew how to bend his haunches to slide down too-steep slopes. He’d be at the top of any peak, racing on his fast horse through rock and downed logs. And then, before I knew it, he would be magically emerging from the bottom of a deep gulch. He fearlessly took risks no one else dared to take. He trusted his mountain horse and his horse trusted him. I’d never seen anyone ride like that.
There he was. Somehow...somehow, I had found him… my very own modern-day Man from Snowy River.
A tiny epilogue:
A few months later, my boss (and now dear friend) at the guest ranch knew I was riding with this cowboy in my spare time. She knew nothing about my childhood movie obsession.
But one day, she said “You know, he’s an amazing rider, have you ever seen the movie The Man from Snowy River?”
Five years, and many horseback rides later, I told this story at our wedding.
My Man from Snowy River.