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In the summer of 1998, my young daughter and I headed out on an afternoon horseback ride up Darby Canyon. On the way into the canyon, we hit a pothole, and our horse trailer came off the hitch and snow-plowed a few feet into the road. Fortunately, no damage was done and we hooked it back up, got to the trailhead and enjoyed our ride. But my daughter’s horse refused to re-enter the trailer. He’d bumped his nose when the trailer came off and he was not going to have any more of that. I tried every trick I knew but nothing worked. The sun was dropping and we were the last folks up in the canyon--long before mobile phones. Coincidentally, I’d just read in the Teton Valley News about a Valley horseman and trainer named Joe Nethercott. So I tied the unwilling horse to a tree, hopped in the truck with my daughter, and drove out to the nearest home, where I explained my situation to an understanding woman who let us borrow her phone to call Joe. He listened silently, asked me exactly where I was, and then agreed to lend a hand.

When Joe arrived, he untied the horse and led it up to the trailer. He got the same response I did--a dead stop followed by a rapid-fire back-up. (Honestly, I was secretly relieved considering how additionally embarrassing it would be should Joe’s mere presence have magically motivated this gelding to hop in the trailer.) Joe took his modest whip in hand and led him to the trailer again. As soon as the horse started backing up, Joe gave it three smart “nope, wrong direction” correctives. Unsurprisingly, that horse suddenly decided that the trailer looked good--or at least better than the alternative. Joe paused for a moment, looked me in the eye, and said, “That horse has your number.” An entirely accurate assessment. Joe then let the horse out of the trailer and had him re-enter it several times just to make sure he’d remain cooperative.

Joe then demonstrated several approaches to the trailer-loading problem. He did not have to school the horse; rather, he had to school me. Thus I became Joe Nethercott’s horsemanship student and a friendship that lasted many years began. I am among the many who still feel the loss of Joe in our lives and the life of the Valley. Joe was a rarity: an authentic, gifted western horseman and an honest, straight-shooting, hard-working, humorous, insightful good man. As he used to say, he was here to help horses who had human problems.

I tell this story now not merely because I continue to think about Joe, but also because, in losing him, we lost a strong center to Teton Valley Western culture. Joe was a true, legitimate voice of the West. A long-time native of the Valley, he knew horses and mules, how to help them help their owners, and how they could be used not only to travel and pack into the backcountry but also pull wagons and sledges for feeding livestock and hauling tourists; he knew the mountain trails and wilderness campsites; he knew the ways of the bear, elk, deer, and more recently, the wolves. He knew cows, ranching, and rodeo. And he knew humans and their strengths and weaknesses.

Why is this important now? Not because there aren’t still hard-working, devoted ranchers, farmers, cowboys and cowgirls, horsemen and women, and talented rodeo riders here in the Valley, thank goodness, but rather because in the thirty years that I have been fortunate enough to visit and now live here, I have seen our Valley become increasingly built-out and suburbanized as the ranches and farms recede and the stores, shops, homes, and developments burst forth. More fences and “No trespassing” signs go up, cutting off access to trails. Mountain bikers dominate many of the wilderness trails where formerly riders passed on horses and mules; we now trail ride with legitimate concern of what may come barreling around a bend of the trail. (Important note: I have yet to meet a mountain biker who did not try to be helpful when encountering my horse and me on a trail. Thank you, mountain bikers.) Motorists, who would once slow down and give a friendly wave when you were riding along one of the roads, now often speed by, oblivious to and endangering horse and rider. As the crowds swell and pressure on the back-country grows, increasing numbers of backpackers and hikers reveal diminishing tolerance or outright hostility for sharing trails with livestock and their riders who, back in the day, were actually responsible for building the very trails they now happily tread or ride.

This letter is a call to all the horse owners, riders, and devotees in the Valley: Time for us to organize and look out for the interests of horses, horse activities, and horse owners, while also working together to help maintain the trails we cherish and share our great passion with others.

We need a formal place at the table alongside all the other folks who have organized and are lobbyists for their interests and activities. Our silence means we will likely be forgotten, overlooked, ignored, and pushed out, as horses and their owners have been across most of the West today.

If you are willing to come to a meeting to discuss this topic, email me at mmulligan@thacher.org It will also be nice to meet new friends with this shared interest.

In closing, I doubt Joe Nethercott would have wanted to come to a meeting to discuss starting any organization. And I suspect any number of you might feel the same way. But as always, the times they are a-changin’. I don’t want to see one of America’s great valleys lose its connection with the West’s proud, historically important, horse culture. I look forward to meeting any of you in the Valley who love horses, mules, trail riding, horse-packing and camping, rodeo, gymkhana--you name it--to see how we might work together to ensure that our interests and future are protected and shared.

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