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Montana’s Inaugural Sleeping Giant Endurance Ride: Just Wow!

By Merri Melde-Endurance.net
June 19 2024

With the termination of the long-running Fort Howes Endurance ride near Ashland, Montana, that left a big hole and a huge hoofprint to fill in the ride calendar for Montana.

Enter Endurance riding families Cindi Weist of Choteau, Ann Depizzol of Helena, and Vonnie and David Brown of Great Falls. They all lamented the loss of Endurance rides in Montana.

Cindi regularly drove through Gates of the Mountains, along the Missouri River just north of Helena. “I kept thinking, I wish I can ride these trails, it's looking so wonderful. This would be a good place for an Endurance ride.”

Ann remembers hearing about her mom riding in the Governor’s Cup in the 1990s on the Sieben Ranch, owned by the Baucus family.

“I drive past that area all the time and have friends of the land owners,” Ann said. “Ava (my daughter) rode the Sieben Ranch years ago as they are very generous with their land and horse riding.

“Anne Perkins [another Endurance rider from Helena] is good friends with Cathy Campbell, one of the land owners, and made the introduction to Vonnie and Dave, and they talked with Cathy, and it all started there! We met with Cathy last fall and she loved the idea…as our trails needed to expand, the Baucus’s got involved and agreed also!”

Both the Baucus’s Sieben Ranch and Campbell’s Hilger Ranch are along the Lewis and Clark Trail and have stewardship interpretive displays.

“Then the work began,” Vonnie said. “We wanted Montana to have the experience of Endurance rides continue.” That’s how Sleeping Giant was born. The ride name comes from the name of the ridge that rises above camp that you can see driving north from Helena, or when you ride up into the mountains. Resembling, obviously, a sleeping giant, the high point is actually named Beartooth Mountain.

And the ride came together in a relatively short time. “We started riding the area last fall, and we didn’t get in again until late spring this year,” Vonnie said. They rode and ATV’d existing cow and two-track trails on the private ranch lands, and learned where they could connect ridges and canyons. They set the date for June 15-16, with a trail ride, Intro, 25, and 50 each day, and a 75-miler on day 1.

Steven and Lauren Coziah, from Afton, Wyoming, arrived the Monday before the ride to help. “We were visiting with Vonnie a while back at a ride, and both said if either of us put a ride on in our area we would help the other make it happen.” Steven said.

“And honestly,” Lauren said, “even though it isn’t super close to us it’s about the same driving distance as most other rides we attend, so it didn’t feel like a huge deal to add a little travel into the trip. It also doesn’t hurt that Montana is gorgeous.”

Steven’s brother and wife, Erik and Becki, also came along to help, getting the chance to ride new trails on his side-by-side and see what Endurance riding was all about. “They made the mistake of saying they’d be more than happy to help. Although they had no idea what they were getting into they really got into it and picked up on how to mark trails pretty quickly,” Lauren said.

Those four were kept busy the entire week, even into Saturday, marking trails, then double and triple checking the markings over the week, as cows are of course part of Montana ranching life, and just like cows anywhere in the West, they like eating ribbons.

So many other volunteers and family members helped with the ride all weekend, it would take a winning Oscar speech to name them all. Head veterinarian Mel Swartz journeyed up from Ogden, Utah, and the treatment vet was local Kaylee Senior.

On Friday, the local news station came out with camera and crew to interview Vonnie and rider Suzanne Hayes. The video/story is here:

Ridecamp was in a broad flat area near a set of large corrals used for calving and branding during the season, surrounded by fields blanketed with yellow flowers.

Day 1 had 59 starters (32 in the LD, 22 in the 50, and 5 in the 75), and Day 2 had 22 starters (19 in the LD, 3 in the 50), and both days had numerous trail and intro riders.

“You need to remember three things about the trails,” David Brown said at Friday’s ride meeting describing the trails: “Wow. Whoopee. Whoa.” All the loops both days had a significant amount of scenic Wow, a fair amount of Whoopee where you could move right out. The Whoa of course was at the finish line.

Trails were a great mix of single track cow trails, two track old ranching roads, and some cross-country. Good climbs took riders high above the surrounding valley with awesome views of the Sleeping Giant, Upper Holter Lake (which is part of the Missouri River), the Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest, and Gates of the Mountains Wilderness area (which was named by Lewis and Clark in 1805, and officially designated a Wilderness in 1964 by Congress). Trails in the valleys were made for moving out, making up time for those places on the climbs and some rocky ridges you had to walk.

So many volunteers helped at the ride, almost all the gates were manned so riders didn’t have to open and close them. Abundant grass along all the trails allowed for snacking all day. Ample water along the trails came mostly from natural springs and cow tanks, with a few ride water troughs placed in between where necessary. You ride prepared for Montana weather, which can be hot, cold, dry, rainy, windy, stormy, all in one day, and Saturday was spicy and had it all!

And the scenery, my God, the scenery! Montana is known for its big sky and mountain ranges, and with the Missouri River and lakes nearby, it was just spectacular.

Also of note, a dessert contest was held Friday before the ride meeting, the beginning of a fine Sleeping Giant tradition, so start working on your recipes for next year.

Thanks to some determined Endurance riders with a great idea and willing to do the work, and some generous local ranchers willing to share their land, the new Sleeping Giant Endurance ride became a reality. This is a Bucket List ride!