The Badlands are an equine lover's paradise
The Badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park features a variety of exploration options for tourists, including one of the most sought out recreation sports — horseback riding.
MEDORA, N.D. -- Imagine this summer riding atop a 14-year-old Clydesdale-Standardbred horse named “Hugo,” as you steer the reins avoiding the branches of Rocky Mountain juniper woodlands, plush with berries, while the evening sun shines through the rugged Badlands in hues of orange, pink and deep purple. Imagine seeing the Western Edge the way Theodore Roosevelt saw it — on horseback.
The Medora Riding Stables offers guided trail rides for equine lovers, tourists and alike and will be saddling its herd of horses for its grand opening May 29. People can choose the one-hour or two-hour ride, Stables Manager Kat Black said. Those who have more horse experience go for the two-hour ride because it’s longer and it presents more of a challenge with its steep inclines.
“You’d be surprised how sore you get just from an hour, and the terrain out here is pretty tough so you do a lot more exercising than you would think,” Black said, with a chuckle. “The horses do a lot of the work, but it takes quite a bit for you to stay balanced going up and down all this stuff too.”
There are three different trails people can go on, which include an entry-level ride, moderate-level ride and a challenging trail for those who are more experienced riders, Black said, adding that if people go on a more easier trail, they’ll have to sacrifice a little more for the views. One of the trails leads to a point that overlooks the town of Medora.
Each day, Black and a crew of 10 guides will saddle up 30 of the horses. The stable has a total of 44 saddle horses, along with a Percheron team that is used for the Medora Musical. The saddle horses are rotated so they are not overworked, because some have appearances in the musical performances as well, Black said.
For Black, the best time to saddle up is around 7:30 a.m. as the sun peeks out from the buttes and the first crew shows up, even if they’re a little “groggy” with their coffee mugs. Though some people may not be early risers, Black noted that it’s the best time to see wildlife from jackrabbits hopping about to mule deer munching on woody plants.
“It’s a pretty unique way to look at it. You can hike anywhere but you get to see from back in the day. Teddy Roosevelt — he’s kind of a big figure around here — he saw most of everything off of horseback,” Black said. “So it’s interesting to see it from a different viewpoint and it is pretty rugged out here, so it gives a lot of different people (such as those) with disabilities, younger children and older people the chance to experience it too.”
The trail system is not connected with the open grazing land where mustangs and buffalo roam. However, Black said that sometimes throughout the day, people may see herds of bison and horses grazing from one of the overlook points of the trail system.
Black, a senior at Dickinson State University who will graduate in May with a degree in agricultural studies-integrated ranch management, began working for the Medora Riding Stables in 2017. After gaining some ground work in the Badland as a guide, she moved up to the manager position in 2019. Originally from Trenton, Mo., Black noted that she can’t see herself leaving Medora anytime soon.
“At first when I came up here, I thought it was a joke because it’s really flat up until you just about get to Medora and I just about wrecked when I dropped down into it. But after that, I love riding out here. Just riding anywhere else seems kind of boring,” she said. “It’s pretty rugged; it’s challenging.”
Since her time at the Medora Riding Stables, Black said she’s had a variety of individuals come out and ride from those who have hip or knee replacements to those who only have one leg. Horses have even taken a few blind people on the trails, which requires a wave of trust, Black said, adding that the horses are mellow and calm and they know what their job is.
“They are living, breathing animals and we have to be considerate of them too. So if you come prepared and are willing to learn, you can always learn something even if you do know something about horses. Everyone does something different, and we do try to do everything we can to make the horse comfortable because they are providing a service to us,” she added.
Over the two years that she has been the stables manager, Black has picked up a “laundry list” of things to do and not to do while navigating through the Badlands with her riding crews, such as pasture management, customer service skills and safety. When people are traveling from all over the United States from New York, Florida and California to those coming from Germany and South Africa, it’s important to know how to monitor a crew as well as giving them options to ride back to the stables during the ride.
“I think a lot of people really enjoy the scenery and they enjoy how they can connect with the scenery off of a horse. Because it’s just a completely different feel than when you’re hiking and you see stuff differently. You can actually pay more attention to the scenery when you’re on a horse because they watch where they’re walking and they pretty well exert themselves so that you can enjoy what you’re looking at,” she said.
Not everyone gets an opportunity to ride horses on a daily basis, like Black does. So by being able to share her love for horses and the outdoors is a way for Black to connect with others.
“... You meet so many interesting people that have rode horses, like I’ve rode with trainers that took the trail rides just because they like to do something different. You can learn something from everyone. And if you haven’t been around horses, it’s a really good experience to get out there and just see it from a point of view you wouldn’t have seen it from before,” Black said.
Though Black has rode horses her whole life, Medora’s trail riding system is unlike anything she has ever experienced.
“That’s kind of the reason why I stayed here. It’s a different breed of people. Everyone’s pretty well willing to help you out. It’s kind of a slower way of life, and everyone knows what a hard day of works like around here and that really seems to make a difference,” Black said, adding, “Not necessarily that horses teach you that — you have to take care of the horse before you take care of yourself and there’s a lot to be learned from that.”
The Medora Riding Stables will run throughout the summer and will stay open on reduced hours/days after Labor Day. The stable will close after the last weekend of September. For more information on the Medora Riding Stables, visit medora.com/do/outdoor/medora-riding-stables-trail-rides/ or call 800-633-6721.