Pagosa’s Past: Horseback trailin’ on the Continental Divide

Photo courtesy John Motter
The 1901 Fourth of July celebration in Pagosa Springs was beefed up by Jicarilla Apache, Southern Ute and Navajo Indians. The festivities included bucking horses, races, drinking, gambling and a declamation by one of the leading town fathers.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

Last week’s column described a hike to the Continental Divide up the East Fork of the San Juan River Trail. This week, I’m describing my first trip up the same trail, but with a difference. A big difference. That first trip was horseback.

I had a friend named John Ross who owned two Tennessee walking horses and had nothing to do for a while but ride Pagosa Country mountain trails. When he invited me to go along, he got an excited yes. He’d been bragging about those horses and here was a chance to find out if it was all talk or for real.

According to Wikipedia, a Tennessee walking horse is a gaited horse known for its unique four-beat running walk, flashy movement and sure-footedness. You also need to know this Motter-guy has owned and ridden horses most of his life starting with plow horses and, despite the cowboy hat, always rode with one eye looking for the best place to land in case my horse decided to unload his cargo.

And so, the eventful day arrived and we loaded the two gray horses into his trailer, an uneventful event. About an hour or so later, we park the trailer along the road beside the source of the Nipple Mountain Trail, cinch up the saddles, give the horses a handful of grain, climb aboard, point their noses uphill, and poke a flank with our spurs. Yipee! Away we go!

As the Tennessee walkers wind around sharp turns, scramble across rocks and keep a sharp eye out, it seems my mind is full of mullings. Mulling No. 1: How did I get here? Mulling No. 2: Why did I get here? Mulling No. 3: How do I get out of here? Mulling No. 5: What if the horse falls? Mulling No. 6: What if we meet a bear? Mulling No. 7: Why is my right stirrup scraping the cliff going up on the right side and my left stirrup silhouetted against a creek 2,000 feet below on my left side?

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the top. Looking west, we could see mountain ranges in far-away Utah and Arizona. Looking east, we could see the Front Range about 75 miles distant across the San Luis Valley. Looking down was scary far on either side.

Since the sun was settling in the west, I set up my camping gear, tent, stove, etc., cooked biscuits and beans, and hit the sack. We got home safely the next day, which emboldened me to ride with him a week or so later into the depths of the Weminuche Wilderness area. I’ll tell the tail of that trail next week. 

This story was posted on July 21, 2020.